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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The unusual decision to bring criminal charges against the University of California, Los Angeles, following the death of a staff research assistant could bring needed attention to safety issues at campus laboratories, two industry observers said Wednesday.
The death of Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji three years ago has created awareness among universities and colleges about preventing similar incidents by improving safety in academic labs. However, the case may spur officials to re-examine their policies now that they could be charged with a crime.
"The idea that someone could go to jail or be fined significantly is a new concept," said Russ Phifer, executive director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists and former head of the American Chemical Society's safety division. "I think the primary impact will be that universities and principal investigators will understand there is potential criminal liability."
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed three felony counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards against UCLA regents and chemistry professor Patrick Harran.
Sangji, 23, was burned over nearly half of her body when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames and ignited her clothes at a UCLA lab in December 2008. She died 18 days later.
Harran, 42, faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted. An arrest warrant was issued for Harran, who is out of town for the holidays. His attorney, Thomas O'Brien, said his client plans to surrender upon his return to Southern California. He declined further comment.
UCLA could be fined about $4.5 million if found guilty of all counts. The university called the charges "outrageous" and it will mount a vigorous defense, according to a statement posted on its website.
"There is absolutely nothing criminal about this case, it was a tragic accident and we will more than demonstrate that in court," said Charles Robinson, chief counsel to the regents.
Prosecutors on Wednesday declined to elaborate why they filed criminal charges against UCLA and Harran, but industry observers said the case will be closely watched.
"I was a little surprised because, as far as I know, it's the first of its kind," said Harry Elston, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety. "I think it's going to grab everyone's attention."
Since Sangji's death, some universities, including UCLA, have attempted to provide more training for student researchers and fit them with fire-resistant lab coats. Yet there is no national mandate for researchers to wear flame-resistant coats and the decision is left up to university officials, Phifer said.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the university nearly $32,000 in May 2009 after finding Sangji hadn't been properly trained and should have been wearing a protective lab coat.
Her death has generated enough publicity that there are at least a dozen national groups working on improving safety in academic labs. Phifer said the biggest problem is the amount of safety training graduate students receive versus the strict standards required in the private sector.
"There's just not that level of supervision at the academic level that you see in industry," Phifer said. "Industry clearly recognizes the potential liability."
Elston agreed and said this case may improve that element.
"Universities have not grasped that concept — planning and checking and acting again to improve the process and I think we're going to start seeing this," he said.
Sangji's death isn't the only case to raise questions about lab safety.
Most recently, U.S. regulators found an accident that killed a Yale University student in April exposed problems with the school's safety policies but the university wasn't fined.
Michele Dufault was working alone in a lab where her hair was pulled into a fast-spinning lathe. The equipment lacked an emergency stop button that could shut off power and was missing physical guards to protect the operator, regulators said in a letter.
The only other case where criminal charges were filed for an academic lab accident was in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, when a Sussex University professor was accused of negligence after a lab explosion where a piece of metal lodged into a student's abdomen.
The incident led to reforms and researchers must now write a hazardous assessment before doing a lab experiment, Phifer said.
Determining the university and the professor's guilt may boil down to the language of the code section they are charged under, observers said. Someone can be found guilty if there is a "willful violation," but UCLA officials have previously said the investigation by state regulators found no such instance.
"I think it sends a definite message to the principal investigators, deans and chancellors that they need to wake up and see how they are doing business in their facilities," Elston said. "Supervisors need to be accountable for the safety of their employees."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.