The unprecedented dangers faced by biotech workers
Worker's Memorial Day, a Day to Fight for the Living
By Becky A. McClain
Watchdog on Science, April 27 2010
On April 28th people around the globe gather to commemorate Worker's Memorial Day. It is a day to remember those who lost their lives at work, but also a day to fight for the living, to continue to advocate for injured workers, to advocate for safe work environments and to protect public health and safety.
I am Becky McClain, a career scientist, a whistleblower, and an injured biotech worker who acquired an illness after a work-related exposure to a genetically engineered virus at Pfizer
My case is unique in some ways and not so unique in others.
It is not unique in ways where history seems to whisper her stories. ”¦Stories told where corporations can often prioritized “bottom lines” over workplace safety. ”¦Stories that tell a tale about workers being intimidated to raise safety issues for fear of losing their job or position, and where workers must work in unsafe work conditions. ”¦and stories about injured workers who are subsequently terminated, abandoned and ill, with no place to turn.
But my case is unique in other ways. Most notably because it involves the world of recombinant DNA, a world where new genetically engineered infectious agents are being created almost every day in our neighborhood university research labs and private biotech and pharmaceutical companies throughout the United States. It is unique because unsafe laboratory practices can not only harm workers, but also could impact the public’s health by creating new emerging disease and new chronic illness.
Dangerous public health and safety-related issues in the biotech field are real, not only relating to my story, but also, for others around the country. This past year Dr. Malcolm Casadaban, a Professor of Molecular Genetics from the Univ. of Chicago died after a work-acquired infection to Yersinia pestis, the bacteria linked to the plague, a bacterium that had been laboratory-attenuated, disabling its ability to cause disease. Unfortunately, that latter fact turned out to be unknowingly wrong. Dr. Casadaban’s death brings to light the unprecedented dangers which biotech workers face and which the public should be made aware.
Dangers in the biotech field have personally impacted me also. Consequently, for the past six years I have been fighting work-related legal battles for my health and to advocate for public health and safety. Through these struggles, I have learned that the biotech industry holds very little protections for workers. For example, biologists have no legal rights to have safety issues addressed formally at work, even if issues are of a public concern. In addition, biotech workers who are inadvertently exposed to genetically engineered infectious agents at work, have no healthcare rights and no legal remedy for an illness which may subsequently develop.
So although I am overjoyed to have recently won a federal lawsuit against Pfizer in violation of my whistleblower rights and my free speech for public health and safety, I am disappointed and concerned to still have no legal remedy regarding Pfizer’s failure to provide the appropriate exposure records necessary for my healthcare, even after doctors’ requests.
And what is most concerning is that no other worker has these rights either.
In fact, OSHA has established a ruling in my case that “trade secrets” supersede a worker’s right to obtain appropriate exposure records upon a biological exposure”¦.records, I may add, that are necessary for directed healthcare.
This is a terrible situation and provides a horrific precedent for all biotech workers and other workers exposed to any type of biological agent while at work. Not only does this ruling increase the likelihood that injured biotech workers will not receive directed medical care, but it also helps conceal the actual work-related biotech injuries from the public’s eye. In addition, since workers could possibly become infectious through an exposure at work, it raises serious public health and safety issues.
I personally would never have imagined that this type of worker rights issue and human rights issue would have even been possible in America.
These issues provide glaring examples where we must fight for the living. Workers who incur a biological exposure should have the right to obtain full disclosure of the exposure information necessary for directed healthcare. And companies, like Pfizer, who do not disclose or keep adequate exposure records on infectious agents they create, should be severely penalized. In addition, scientists should have legal rights and a formal structure to address health and safety issues on the job. Finally, our broken Worker Compensation system leaves many injured workers destitute and abandoned. It needs to be revamped and strengthened to provide timely and appropriate healthcare for all injured workers, including those who acquire illness. These initiatives, to fight for the living, not only provide for a safe work environment, but also, protect and benefit the public.
Today on Worker's Memorial Day we reflect on all of those who have lost their lives at work this past year, Perhaps, we should especially remember the most recent tragedies in the United States: the 5 men who died during the Middletown Kleen Energy explosion in Connecticut, the 29 miners who lost their lives at the Massey West Virginia Coal Mine Explosion, as well as, the 11 men who lost their lives at the oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana. These deaths, along with the numerous serious injuries, reflect how catastrophic it can be when unsafe work conditions are ignored.
But let us not forget on this Worker's Memorial Day also, those nameless souls who have died through work-related illness, abandoned because of no laws or legal protections. We should moreover bear in mind on this day, those currently struggling with work-related illness or injuries who suffer the same abandonment. May these men and women be also remembered in our prayers and provide a reason to fight for the living.