Explosions in the Lab

What can be learned from the death of a young biochemist at UCLA?

Beryl Lieff Benderly in Slate:

ScreenHunter_04 May. 28 13.26 A few days after Christmas of 2008, a young technician in a biochemistry laboratory at the University of California-Los Angeles began to transfer a tablespoon of t-butyl lithium from one container to another. T-butyl lithium is pyrophoric, meaning it ignites on contact with air, but Sheri Sangji wasn't wearing a protective lab coat—instead, she had on a flammable synthetic sweatshirt. Somehow the stuff spilled onto her clothing, and she was engulfed in flames. Sangji died from her burns 18 days later, and UCLA officials bemoaned the “tragic accident” that killed her.

According to a recently completed government investigation, the fire could have been foreseen. On May 4, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the university for multiple “serious”—i.e., potentially life-threatening—violations, including its inability to show that Sangji had been trained to handle the dangerous substance and the lack of proper protective attire. UCLA's own safety officials had already faulted the lab on the latter issue back in October, but the problem went uncorrected. All told, Cal/OSHA imposed $31,875 in fines, which the university did not contest.

More here.