Investigation says veterans hospital in violation of mold cleanup guidelines

January 13, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - An employee and a patient's exposure to mold in October 2006 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) near Martinsburg triggered an internal investigation and appears to explain why the hospital was cited last month for health and safety violations by a U.S. Department of Labor agency.

A 19-page report about the internal investigation obtained by The Herald-Mail cites the medical center off Charles Town Road for violating health and safety guidelines, such as having the employee use a shop vacuum for mold cleanup in the Same Day Surgery kitchenette area without the appropriate filter.

"Surgical masks do not afford adequate protection. There is even less protection when worn over (the employee's) beard," a four-member investigative team with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Center for Engineering & Occupational Safety and Health (CEOSH) said in a report compiled after their visit on Sept. 11 and 12, 2007.


The CEOSH "special purpose visit" to the hospital came two months before Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials found three health and safety violations, two deemed serious, in an inspection on Nov. 20 and 21, 2007.

On Dec. 27, OSHA issued a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions, and gave the medical center until Jan. 24 to abate them or request an informal conference with the U.S. Department of Labor in Charleston, W.Va., to get more time.

Hospital administrators declined comment last week.

"The CEOSH report is an internal review," VAMC spokeswoman Barbara B. Corbin said. "It remains open and ongoing, and at this time, it would be inappropriate to comment."

Report findings

According to the CEOSH report, the patient, who was compensated for work done at the hospital as part of his therapy, has not been found since he and the employee were exposed to mold on Oct. 18 and 19, 2006. The mold was caused by a leak from an ice machine in the kitchenette that was discovered Oct. 17, 2006.

The investigative team reported that the patient never should have been working on the cleanup, and also was wearing inadequate respiratory protection.

The Same Day Surgery unit remained open while the mold removal was under way, and three patients had procedures done during that time, according to the report.

"According to medical center staff, none (of the patients) suffered adverse health effects," the report said.

When the mold was discovered, Same Day Surgery staff had been complaining of upper respiratory symptoms, and 31 employees ultimately were evaluated for potential health effects of mold exposure, according to the CEOSH report.

All but one complaint was resolved since the mold was removed, but it wasn't completely abated for two weeks, according to the report.

"Samples taken two weeks after the incident confirmed that mold was present following the Medical Center's cleanup effort, resulting in the use of contractors to finish the work in the walls of the Same Day Surgery kitchenette," the report said.

After scraping, vacuuming and removing a mold-contaminated board from the kitchenette in violation of guidelines, investigators were told the employee was assigned to five more mold remediation jobs at the hospital, one as recent as the week before the 2007 Labor Day weekend.

The employee, already limited by chronic lung conditions, experienced shortness of breath while at work several weeks after being exposed to the kitchenette mold and was prescribed an inhaler by a doctor, according to the CEOSH report.

Compensation claim denied

The internal investigation noted that the employee's workers' compensation claim had been denied and was pending appeal.

Jonathan Coffin, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, confirmed Friday that VAMC employee John Harmison asked for the congresswoman's help with the claim appeal to the workers' compensation district office in Philadelphia in September 2007. More than 20 pages of documentation concerning the mold exposure also were faxed to Capito's office, he said

"We do this on a number of occasions when federal employees have an issue with a workers' compensation claim," Coffin said of review requests, which Capito makes on behalf of constituents.

The CEOSH report appears to criticize the denial of Harmison's workers' compensation claim, noting documentation made no mention of the fact that a respirator wasn't offered to the employee, a requirement for removing drywall with mold on it.

Along with increased shortness of breath, Harmison in a recent interview confirmed the internal report's findings that he also experiences a heightened level of joint pain.

"I shouldn't have even been in that area," Harmison said of his pre-existing medical condition.

The 57-year-old Berkeley County resident said he has been employed at the VAMC for nearly 35 years, and currently works in the center's engineering department, assigned to painting, carpentry and general maintenance and mechanical jobs.

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