Professor facing criminal charges in assistant's lab fire death

Professor facing criminal charges in assistant's lab fire death

A chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles is being prosecuted for the 2008 death of a 23-year-old research assistant who died after suffering burns in a lab fire. He was arraigned on May 9. The professor faces up to 4 ½ years in prison if convicted of the felony charges, which relate to violating workplace safety standards. The charges are proceeding despite protests from the university that the fatal accident was just that, an accident.

According to a chemist who served as expert witness at a previous criminal court hearing, the fatal accident was preventable. The woman had a bachelor's degree in chemistry but had not worked with the chemical that killed her until she began her position at UCLA. He said she should have had training and received manufacturer's instructions on the chemical.

The woman was working in the professor's organic chemistry laboratory without a protective lab coat when she transferred a highly flammable chemical, tert-Butyllithium. The chemicals burst into flames and ignited her clothes. The woman died 18 days later.

Criminal prosecutions for workplace safety violations are rare. Civil fines and penalties are more common. In this case, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the university almost $32,000. It found that the woman had not been properly trained and should have been wearing a protective lab coat.

In addition to criminal prosecutions and government penalties, wrongful death lawsuits are also a possibility after fatal workplace accidents. Although employers cannot usually be sued, third parties such as manufacturers or others who contributed to a workplace death can sometimes be held liable.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Patrick Harran, UCLA Professor, Ordered To Trial In Lab Death," April 26, 2013


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