On a late afternoon in Dec­em­ber 2008, the experiment She­harbano “Sheri” Sangji was work­ing on went up in flames. The 23-­year-old laboratory assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles, suffered second and third degree burns over 43 percent of her body and died almost three weeks later in a hospital burn unit.

Now the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has brought felony charges against U.C.L.A. chemistry professor Patrick Harran, the head of Sangji’s lab, and the Regents of the University of California for violations of safety regulations resulting in her death. If convicted on all three counts, Harran faces up to four and a half years in prison, and U.C.L.A. faces $4.5 million in fines. The university terms the charges “outrageous” and Sangji’s death a “tragic ac­cident.” It is planning a vigorous defense.

The charges, apparently the first to be brought in an academic safety incident, raise the widely neglected issue of safety standards at university labs. A scathing re­port issued last October by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) brought additional attention to
the problem. The investigation, launched after a January 2010 explosion at Texas Tech University maimed a graduate student, mentions 120 mishaps, including the one involving Sangji. The report outlines systemic problems common on many campuses, such as failure to report accidents, and a lack of proper safety training for students and staff. Many university labs operate as quasi-independent “fiefdoms,” according to the report; lab chiefs have great authority to observe or ignore safety standards and often see outside safety checks as “infringing upon their academic freedom.”

The California criminal charges arise from citations and fines that the state’s Division of Occupa­tional Safety and Health leveled against U.C.L.A. in May 2009 for “serious” violations, among them failing to make timely corrections of unsafe conditions or to provide required training and personal protective gear. (Not only was Sangji not wearing a lab coat, but her synthetic sweatshirt may have “caught fire,” according to the citation.)

The rate of serious mishaps in industrial labs is lower than that in academic labs, in part because industrial labs are more tightly regulated, according to experts, including James Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute in Natick, Mass. Some experts believe that attaching criminal responsibility to preventable mishaps may encourage greater accountability.

This article was published in print as "Are University Labs Criminally Dangerous?"