The local Frederick News-Post filed a FOIA to learn the number and type of infectious incidents and injuries that had been reported over the past few years. Last November an employee was sick with tularemia for 3 weeks before being diagnosed, Most likely she inhaled the bacteria.
Examples incllude the following:
Of the 16 reports that involved a potential exposure to viruses or bacteria, three workers were bitten or scratched by an animal, two were pricked by a needle and three were splashed by contaminated liquids.
Three workers each filed a report for a Feb. 9 incident involving a mouse that had been exposed to Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague. One worker was weighing the mouse’s spleen and dropped the petri dish containing the possibly infected organ. None of the three workers was wearing any respiratory protection, so they were put on antibiotics until the spleen tested negative for Yersinia pestis. After this accident, USAMRIID decided workers would weigh tissue in snap-cap vials instead of petri dishes.
Last June, a lab technician working with a primate infected with the Ebola-Zaire virus noticed a 1-centimeter tear in the right index finger of the worker’s protective blue suit. The inner glove had not been punctured, and the technician’s finger had no breaks in the skin, so the incident was deemed to have “negligible risk of disease.”
What this demonstrates all too vividly is that when working with live animals the protective, high-containment suits are inadequate to prevent infectious exposures via bites and scratches. Stuff happens, and workers are not always prepared with respiratory and eye protection for splashes or simply inhaling the bugs they study. Work-related infections are sometimes not diagnosed early enough to prevent exposure to the surrounding community.
The NY Times looked at the safety issue over the entire industry, in “Safety Rules Can’t Keep UP With Biotech Industry:
One study, reviewing incidents discussed in scientific journals from 1979 to 2004, counted 1,448 symptom-causing infections in biolabs, resulting in 36 deaths. About half the infections were in diagnostic laboratories, where patient blood or tissue samples are analyzed, and half in research laboratories.
But that may be a “substantial underestimation,” the study’s authors wrote, because many incidents are never made public. The study was done by two biosafety experts and published in the book “Biological Safety: Principles and Practices.”