BY STEVE SMITH
BOSTON, Mass.-Detailing three procedural violations it deems as “serious,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA; www.osha.gov) has fined Boston University and Boston Medical Center Corp. $8,100 as a result of researcher exposure to the potentially lethal tularemia-causing bacterium in the spring of 2004.
The incident at the university’s Evans Biomedical Research Center BSL-2 biosafety lab (see CleanRooms, February 2005, page 1) has triggered heightened awareness of the need for education and procedural thoroughness concerning hazardous biological research. A basic requirement of BSL-2 lab research is that potentially hazardous agents be handled within a vented hood. It is believed that three researchers had been working with the “rabbit fever” agent outside of the hoods because they contained other materials that interfered with the research.
“Employers who hire researchers to work with potentially infectious biological materials have a significant duty under the law to make every effort to ensure that their employees are protected at all times from exposure to such materials,” says OSHA’s Boston-area director, Brenda Gordon.
Although OSHA defines a serious violation as one where there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, and that the employer knew or should have known of the hazard, the total proposed penalty of $8,100 for three citations is far short of the maximum fine of $42,000.
After conducting its investigation into the incident, between January 21 and April 27, OSHA alleged serious violations of the agency’s personal protective equipment standard, specifically that:
- the university and Medical Center failed to ensure that all employees wore gloves and eye protection when working with the tularemia strain;
- the institutions failed to certify in writing the required workplace hazard assessment for work with the hazardous agent;
- employees who worked with the agent and were not using glove or eye protection were not retrained.
OSHA has also requested that the university and Boston Medical Center provide progress reports on efforts to reduce employee exposure to biological materials.
The incident has fueled community opposition to a proposed BSL-4 lab at the university-one of two sites nationwide designated by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease for the study of bioterrorism pathogens. Procedural monitoring differences, however, are significant; a less hazardous BSL-2 lab is typically self-monitored concerning security and safety procedures while a BSL-4 lab has the strictest safeguards with official monitoring of all activities, procedures and security.
Public debate, however, continues over the proposed $128 million federally funded BSL-4 lab. Currently, the National Institute of Health (NIH)-umbrella organization of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that has committed to fund the project-is preparing a supplemental draft environmental impact statement based on public comments made to the initial environmental impact statement released last October. An additional public meeting to collect further comments will be held, and the NIH says these comments will be addressed in a final environmental impact statement. III