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San Francisco VA Research Lab Cited After Employee Dies

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San Francisco, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) - The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a notice of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions to the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center after concluding its investigation into the death of Richard Din, a research associate at the center's research laboratory in April 2012. The notice consists of three serious violations for failing to protect laboratory workers researching Neisseria meningitidis, a bacterium that can cause meningitis.

Din, employed by the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, was working at the VA Medical Center and was considered a Department of Veterans Affairs employee during projects at the laboratory based on an agreement between the VA and NCIRE. Workers in the laboratory were inoculating live bacteria outside of a biosafety cabinet, which is an enclosed laboratory workspace used to handle pathogens safely in a laboratory environment.

"Richard Din died because the VA failed to supervise and protect these workers adequately, even though they agreed NCIRE workers were covered as VA employees," said Ken Atha, OSHA's regional administrator in San Francisco. "Research hospitals and medical centers have the responsibility as employers to protect workers from exposure to recognized on-the-job hazards such as this."

The three serious violations include failing to require workers to use a safety enclosure when performing microbiological work with a viable bacteria culture; provide training on the signs and symptoms of illnesses as a result of employee exposure to a viable bacteria culture, such as meningitis; and provide available vaccines for workers potentially exposed to bacteria. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

"Cal/OSHA shares federal OSHA's concerns," said Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess. "We were saddened by this senseless loss; however, we remain hopeful that future incidents can be prevented at this and other facilities throughout California. This is why Cal/OSHA adopted a standard in 2009 to protect workers from diseases, such as meningitis, that can be contracted through contaminated air in laboratories."

As required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, federal agencies must comply with the same safety standards as private sector employers. The federal agency equivalent to a private sector citation is the notice of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions. A notice is used to inform establishment officials of violations of OSHA standards, alternate standards and 29 Code of Federal Regulations citable program elements. OSHA cannot propose monetary penalties against another federal agency for failing to comply with OSHA standards.

The medical center must take appropriate corrective action, but has 15 business days from receipt of the notices to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director in Oakland, or appeal the notices by submitting a summary of its position on the unresolved issues to OSHA's regional administrator.

To ask questions, obtain compliance assistance, file a complaint, or report workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, call OSHA's toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742).

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and Executive Order 12196, the head of each federal agency is responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for agency employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for all federal employees by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.

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