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Are CDC lab workers unnecessarily at risk?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention faced considerable scrutiny last year thanks to numerous health-related mishaps that occurred at the organization’s high-tech laboratory buildings around the nation. Now, a 14-page summary of recent lab incidents obtained by USA Today is shedding more light on these incidents while raising additional concerns about lab-worker safety and incident-reporting procedures.

With six CDC laboratories currently in operation in Illinois, residents and a Crystal Lake worker compensation lawyer are asking if state lab workers are facing unnecessary risks in the workplace.

High-profile incidents

Last year, CDC labs experienced three well-publicized safety lapses that potentially exposed dozens of laboratory workers to deadly diseases and substances. In one instance, lab employees were exposed to anthrax, and in another, one worker had exposure to the Ebola virus. In a third highly reported incident, a deadly strain of bird flu was mistakenly sent from one CDC lab to another.

The incidents led to the evacuation of many CDC staff members and raised concerns about the effectiveness of existing safety communication and reporting systems used by the agency. However, the new report findings indicate that these types of safety problems may be far more prevalent than previously believed.

Summary findings

The new report on CDC lab incidents details an array of concerning events, including about a dozen involving power outages and air-flow system failures at agency labs around the country. The failure of airflow systems is particularly concerning because of the critical role they play in preventing potentially deadly pathogens from spreading into the air.

While the report is not especially comprehensive and lacks detail in many places, it cites factors like lightning strikes and electrical surges as causes of the airflow changes. While airflow concerns are discussed to some degree in the new report, they are listed among many other issues raised in its pages. Other areas of concern raised by the summary involve worker exposure to pathogens via needles, maintenance workers propping open doors to restricted areas, and problems with the protective gear intended to protect lab workers from deadly viruses.

Missing information

While the safety incidents detailed in the new report provide a better picture of the risks faced by CDC lab workers in Illinois and across the nation, some biosafety specialists and a Crystal Lake worker compensation lawyer are more concerned with what the report is lacking. The CDC redacted the names of some of the viruses and bacteria that were involved in some incidents in a move the agency attributed to an existing law on bioterror pathogens. USA Today has filed an appeal to be able to view the redacted material on the grounds that the redactions aren’t justified by law.

Also concerning to many is the limited number of safety incidents detailed in the report. One biosafety consultant who once worked for and conducted training at the CDC said that the small number of incidents was suspect given the many CDC labs in existence around the country. His primary concern was the fact that staff members were not reporting all incidents at U.S. labs, which is critical in helping identify new risks and prevent future incidents.

Agency response

When questioned by USA Today as to whether the CDC had one single office responsible for collecting and reviewing reports on lab incidents to track trends, the agency offered several differing responses. First, it said that only those incidents that required a visit to an organization health care clinic undergo close review, and that others are reported to safety directors of specific research programs. The agency later altered this response, stating that all lab incident reports were handled by the office of the associate director for laboratory science, which was established in 2014.

When asked to produce the policy detailing this new regulation, the agency again changed its tune, stating that the policy only applies to incidents that meet particular criteria, such as exposure in certain laboratories or incidents that result in a “high likelihood of infection” for lab workers. Critics believe that the CDC’s reporting rules are insufficient, and that they leave much of the responsibility to report an incident in the hands of the employee.

CDC Director Tom Frieden said last year that the agency would hire one associate director for laboratory science and safety who would be responsible for reporting biosafety incidents directly to Frieden. The intent was to identify a single source of accountability who would then be responsible for establishing and enforcing pre-established biosafety procedures. To date, this role has not been filled.

Existing concerns

The CDC asserts that the agency is working to fill the position and further establish guidelines for biosafety and laboratory incident-reporting. However, a worker compensation lawyer in Crystal Lake knows that serious risks remain for employees of CDC labs, which is particularly concerning given the amount of attention these safety lapses have received in recent years.

Legislators from several states where CDC labs are present are urging the agency to take a more active role in helping prevent future biosafety incidents, citing a need for an agency-wide strategy to help prevent future lapses in safety. In the meantime, CDC lab employees in Illinois and other states across the nation are urged to remain vigilant while in the workplace and to immediately report any safety concerns and incidents to a supervisor.

Illinois CDC lab workers and others who believe that they may have been exposed to deadly pathogens or other health risks in the workplace are encouraged to consult an attorney.

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