Where the Watchdogs Are the Workers 

The case of a whistleblower who complained of unsafe practices at Roche Molecular is both scary and encouraging.

It was March 2002, and Frederic Janson was looking for work. The economy hadn't begun to stagger out of the recession, and good science jobs were hard to come by in the deflated home of the tech bubble. So he must have been pleased as punch when an official with the temporary employment agency Kelly Services scored him an interview with Roche Molecular Systems. After all, Roche Molecular is a subsidiary of Hoffman La Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that employs more than 65,000 people worldwide, and is at the forefront of critical diagnostic research as well as developing treatments for HIV-AIDS and hepatitis. When the company hired him as a temporary research associate, and promised to consider him for a permanent position, Janson must have thought his future was assured.

Just four months later, he found himself wondering if he was going to die of AIDS.

Employees subjected to unsafe working conditions often tend to be docile, ignorant of the hazards of toxic material, and confused about their legal rights. But if the AIDS epidemic has created any good in the world, it's this: Everyone sane is terrified of it. And at hospitals, clinics, and research labs around the country, managers can't afford to be casual about the safety of their employees. Because, as Janson's case shows, when it comes to AIDS and infectious disease, they won't put up with it anymore.

According to a lawsuit Janson filed in Alameda County Superior Court, when he reported for work at the Roche lab in Alameda, he thought he would spend his time "extracting DNA from the blood of immunocompromised people," as part of the company's efforts to create new diagnostic tools. Instead, his lawyers claimed in a lawsuit, "Mr. Janson spent the majority of his time shipping, handling, receiving, and transporting infected and potentially infected blood from immunocompromised patients," a job for which he had no proper certification, as required by the federal government. Sometimes, he alleged, his bosses even made him cart potentially infected blood around in his own car.

Once he realized he was breaking federal laws, Janson warned Karina Orle, a lab microbiology manager and his boss, who did not return a phone call seeking comment. But according to Janson's lawsuit, Orle disregarded his concerns.

Over the next few months, Janson hauled vials of infected blood from one freezer to the next. The freezer temperatures were set at levels so far below the industry standard that the glass tubes were in danger of cracking and spilling blood and razor-sharp shards onto his hands. Although Roche management had promised the Mayo Clinic that it would switch to plastic tubes, the shipments never arrived. In addition, Roche's vials didn't properly fit the freezer shelves upon which they were stored. At one point, the lawsuit alleges, Janson had to rig the shelves with cardboard and tape to keep the tubes in place.

On July 8, 2003, Janson was hauling out a shelf full of stored blood but didn't notice a shard of glass lodged at the rear. The glass ripped through his double latex gloves and sliced up his thumb, and he thought his days might well be numbered.

After that, Janson decided he'd had enough. He blitzed laboratory managers with e-mails, warning them that they were ignoring basic safety precautions. Employees handled bloody broken tubes without training, Janson wrote. They failed to cover infected needles with safety guards, change bloody equipment in laboratory fume hoods, or disinfect the hoods after using them. Managers had not posted signs warning employees that they were handling infected substances; they did not post federal employee safety regulations as required by law, or even clean the labs very often. What did he get for his diligence? A big fat pink slip, evidently. Janson's lawsuit alleges that, on October 11, his temp agency representative called and told him Roche no longer needed his services.

Janson wasn't about to take this lying down. He immediately contacted the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Department investigators found Roche Molecular's managers in violation of numerous regulations -- including allowing more than two hundred vials of infected blood to shatter because of excessively cold storage -- and fined the company almost $10,000. Then Janson got a lawyer and sued. In April, he and Roche's lawyers settled the case. Janson's attorneys refused to comment for this story, citing a confidentiality agreement. Several company representatives, including the attorney who handled the case, did not return calls seeking comment.

Frederic Janson's story is strikingly different from the usual tales of industrial toxins and employee safety, because not for one minute did he imagine that he wasn't entitled to rigorous protections against the deadly material he handled. In fact, the HIV virus may be the most regulated substance in American economic life short of uranium. From the early days of the epidemic, when researchers realized that the disease was blood-borne, workers throughout the health-care industry have been at the forefront of establishing new regulatory standards for handling biological material. One of the epidemic's many darker moments was the refusal of emergency medical personnel to treat HIV-positive patients who were bleeding, but the silver lining to that particular cloud was an increased awareness of blood as a vector for disease in a clinical setting -- and regularly redoubled efforts to guarantee safety for health-care workers on the front lines of the epidemic.

According to Deborah Gold, a senior industrial hygienist with Cal/OSHA, the government didn't establish a comprehensive set of regulations about the handling of infected blood until the early '90s. It took the AIDS crisis and an army of frightened nurses to put it in place. "There was a concern that you wouldn't have people to staff these units if you didn't have certain protections in place," she says.

In fact, every time these regulations have been updated, it's been nurses and frontline hospital workers who have led the charge, according to Kay Carney, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 250. For example, the update in OSHA blood rules requiring the use of a new generation of safety needles, Carney says, was "first passed in Maryland, where a health-care worker contracted AIDS from a needle stick and pushed to pass this legislation."

Today, the fear of AIDS has ironically rendered the practices alleged by Janson and state regulators virtually nonexistent, which is why the Roche case seems so exotic. According to Ara Tahmassian, the associate vice chancellor for research at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, he and his colleagues almost never hear of substandard handling of infected blood. "In the early '80s, especially in the hospitals, when people were using radioactive materials, we always had problems getting people to put gloves on," he says. "My personal experience is that generally, people have taken the concepts of infected blood much more seriously. ... I can't imagine a serious institution would be casual about this."

And even when they are, guys like Frederic Janson can be counted on to raise hell.

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