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Veterans hospital blamed for worker’s death from meningitis

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Richard Din contracted a rare form of meningitis last April while trying to develop a vaccine. OSHA officials found that safety precautions were not used. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Richard Din contracted a rare form of meningitis last April while trying to develop a vaccine. OSHA officials found that safety precautions were not used.

A federal agency has found that serious violations at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s research laboratory contributed to the death of a researcher last year who was exposed to a rare form of meningitis.

Richard Din, an employee of the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, contracted Neisseria meningitidis, a rare form of the disease, last April while working to develop a vaccine for the strand. Din, 25, died as a result of the exposure to the bacteria.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that it had issued a notice “of unsafe and unhealthful working conditions” at the facility.

Among three serious violations found is one that revealed Din was not required to work in an enclosed ventilated work space that would potentially have contained the strain, protecting him and his colleagues, according to Deanne Amaden, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor.

“It was available in the lab, but it appears that employee was not using it,” she said.

The department’s investigation also found workers were not provided with “training on the signs and symptoms of illnesses as a result of employee exposure to a viable bacteria culture, such as meningitis.” They were also not provided with available vaccines for workers potentially exposed to bacteria, according to the department.

“Richard Din died because the VA failed to supervise and protect these workers adequately,” said Ken Atha, OSHA’s regional administrator in San Francisco. “Research hospitals and medical centers have the responsibility as employers to protect workers from exposure to recognized on-the-job hazards such as this.”

The medical center must respond to the notice and outlay a plan to correct the violations by Monday, according to Deanne Amaden, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor.

In a released statement, Veterans Affairs Medical Center officials said that following Din’s death, they immediately closed the laboratory, instituted a strengthened vaccine policy, extended requirements to use the ventilated safety cabinets and trained employees on signs and symptoms of meningitis.

A vaccine for the meningitis strain that killed Din may soon be available in the United States, however. A vaccine is expected to be available in Europe this year, while negotiations continue with U.S. regulators.

Acquiring infections in the lab is a rare occurrence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the most recent study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 16 cases of probable
laboratory-acquired meningitis occurred worldwide between 1985 and 2001, and eight of them were fatal.

There are no fines associated with the notice because OSHA cannot impose one on federal agencies.

akoskey@sfexaminer.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.