California researcher dies from unsafe workplace

Medical research is becoming increasingly complex. With advances in that knowledge also come additional risks, as today's story suggests.

A 25-year-old California researcher working at a Veterans Affairs medical center recently died after exposure to meningitis-causing bacteria. His death prompted an investigation by federal officials for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The OSHA investigators found the lab liable for the accident based on three safety violations.

Surprisingly, the medical center had allowed the researcher to work with the bacteria in the open, rather than in a biosafety cabinet. In addition, the OSHA investigators said that lab workers should have received meningitis vaccines. In fact, the lab failed to even educate its workers about the potential symptoms of meningitis.

In this case, the worker wasn't vaccinated and was displaying recognizable symptoms of meningitis before his death, including headache, fever and chills.

OSHA issued a notice of violations to the VA facility, requiring the facility to provide appropriate vaccinations for its workers and to install safety cabinets for researchers working with dangerous germs. However, since the VA is a federal agency, OSHA cannot impose a fine against it. If this were a private company, however, OSHA most likely would have imposed a sizable fine.

As this post illustrates, advances in technology and research may require employers to modernize and adapt workplace safety measures. In many workplaces, the nature of work has changed. That means that employers have an obligation to ensure that workers are not placed at risk for on-the-job injuries. If a workplace accident was preventable or caused by unsafe working conditions, the employer will likely be liable under its workers' compensation policy.

Source:, "OSHA Finds VA at Fault for California Researcher Death," Paul Elias, Feb. 20, 2013

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