UHS Laboratory May Be Probed

Handling of Bodily Fluids Questioned

University Health Services (UHS) may soon be subject to a federal investigation for allegedly exposing workers in its clinical laboratory to hazardous diseases.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor is considering the probe because it received a complaint charging the laboratory with mishandling "blood-borne pathogens"--disease-causing microorganisms or viruses that are carried by blood.

"The [federal] standard is designed to protect workers who might be exposed to HIV or a virus by handling contaminated body fluids," said OSHA Area Director K. Frank Gravitt on Friday. "We sent a letter telling the University of the allegations."

A former laboratory employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, yesterday took credit for lodging the complaint with OSHA. The former employee said workers in the laboratory often handled leaky containers with dangerous specimens because administrators were unwilling to pay for proper containers.

A current UHS employee, who also requested anonymity, yesterday confirmed the former worker's descriptions.


The former employee said specimens were transported to the laboratory from health services offices at the Medical, Law and Business Schools twice daily in brown paper bags that leaked. But federal guidelines require such fluids to be transported in covered, fluid-proof coolers.

"Basically, they're transporting those specimens in a way not consistent with OSHA guidelines," said the former employee, adding that laboratory supervisors are fully aware of the guidelines.

The former employee also said workers were permitted to handle feces from stool tests in paper envelopes instead of the more costly barrier envelopes required under federal guidelines.

The numerous diseases often carried in feces made these specimens a health hazard, and many workers, University mail employees and U.S. Postal deliverers were not aware of the contents of the envelopes they were handling, the former employee said.

The former employee said laboratory workers informed their superiors of these problems, but nothing was done.

UHS Director Dr. David S. Rosenthal '59 refuted the allegations yesterday. He said the UHS safety committee reviewed the complaints outlined in the OSHA letter and found them to be without merit.

"Those are not little paper bags," Rosenthal said. "They are bags within bags."

Rosenthal said he did not expect OSHA to go forward with the complaint.

He also said a January 1992 accreditation report on UHS by the Illinois-based Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations called UHS safety "the most exceptional they had ever seen."

Reached at her home yesterday and questioned outside her office Friday, Barbara Skane, the laboratory manager, refused to comment.

Gravitt on Friday did not confirm the source of the complaint. He said OSHA had notified Harvard of the allegations in a letter two weeks ago, and the health service submitted a response Friday. Gravitt's office will examine the complaint and the response to decide whether to begin a full-scale probe of the laboratory.