Emory Report

December 7, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 14

Yerkes settles with OSHA on safety violations

The Yerkes Center has settled its case with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In April, the agency claimed the primate center was noncompliant on safety practices in the wake of Research Assistant Beth Griffin's death last December.

In the settlement, OSHA agreed to drop its charge that Yerkes willfully violated safety rules and, in contrast to prior assertions, recognized that safety conditions and practices at the center in no way caused or contributed to Griffin's injury or death. OSHA initially fined the center $105,300 for 10 alleged safety violations last April; the settlement, announced Dec. 1, includes a $66,400 fine.

"We have now reached a settlement because the agency finally agreed to retract or amend its most serious charges," said Yerkes Director Tom Insel. "Yerkes takes its responsibility for safety of our employees seriously and has always worked in compliance with regulations and guidelines. We also want to turn our full attention back to our mission-improving human and animal health through scientific discovery."

The government agency also dropped its charge that Yerkes did not have a referral system in place to ensure employees access to prompt medical evaluation and care. The citations issued by OSHA last April have also been changed to make it clear they don't relate to events preceding Griffin's death, but focus only on the period of time following it, said Kate Egan, Yerkes' chief of public affairs.

The OSHA investigation began after Yerkes reported Griffin's death almost a year ago, following exposure to the rare herpes B virus. Considerable media attention ensued, and OSHA broadened the scope of its investigation to include procedures followed by other workers in the aftermath of Griffin's death.

Yerkes administrators vigorously protested the citations issued by the agency, saying the center had followed safety guidelines developed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biosafety working groups-the same procedures followed by the nation's other primate centers. Griffin's exposure to the virus, which occurred after bodily fluid from a caged rhesus monkey splashed in her eye, was a previously unknown route of infection. After her death, Yerkes adopted broader use of protective eyewear for workers, and its staff complied, Egan said.

The amended OSHA citations penalize Yerkes for an increased number of potential eye exposures reported by workers in the weeks following Griffin's death. All of the workers were wearing accepted eye protection, Egan said, but "this increased reporting of potential exposures resulted from an understandably heightened concern by all employees and the fact that Yerkes stressed to employees the importance of reporting such incidents to ensure protection against actual infection." No employee was exposed to herpes B.

"We are all aware of the risks, and must balance that daily against the need to provide first-rate care to the primates and to try and improve the lives of those who will face debilitating diseases," Insel said. "People who do this kind of work are deeply committed to our mission and to the animals."

Yerkes officials hope the settlement will allow staff there to grieve properly and look forward, Egan said, with a renewed commitment to a safe work environment and the center's mission.

"This has been a tragic episode, most clearly for [Griffin's] family, friends and close colleagues, but deeply disturbing and painful as well to the entire Yerkes community," she said.

The CDC will convene a working group in January to revise the current guidelines about protective eyewear in light of what has been learned since Griffin's death about risks of exposure for those who work with primates.

--Stacey Jones

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