OSHA seeking to stem risk of infectious agent lab hazards

OSHA officials have recently issued a request for information on health risks from infectious agents and ways to best reduce them, according to a news report released by the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

"Worker safety cannot be sacrificed on the altar of innovation," David Michaels, the new OSHA director, said. “We have inadequate standards for workers exposed to infectious materials.”

It is estimated that there are some 232,000 employees in the nation’s biotechnology field.

In its recent request, OSHA targeted three specific areas of concern that included biowarfare threats, like anthrax and Ebola, synthetic biology, in which  scientists can make wholesale genetic changes in an organism and the shifting focus of the pharmaceuticals industry, according to the Post-Bulletin report.
Michaels also noted there are very few good statistics on biohazard accidents. One study that reviewed accidents between 1979 to 2004 counted 1,448 symptom-causing infections in biolabs that resulted in 36 deaths.

The recent OSHA concerns came on the heels of a lawsuit filed against Pfizer by Becky McClain, a former molecular biologist at the company's research center, which employs 3,500 people in Groton, Conn.

McClain claimed to have suffered bouts of temporary paralysis after being infected by a genetically engineered virus at the Groton lab. Last month, a jury awarded McClain $1.37 million, claiming Pfizer fired her for raising questions about laboratory safety.