The power of regional investigative reporting

We have good news about the news business to share. Our work makes a difference!

InvestigateWest’s groundbreaking story on the hazards of chemotherapy exposure for health care workers has resulted in the passage of two laws improving worker safety in Washington state, signed by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in April. One of the laws establishes an occupational cancer registry in the state, and the other regulates better regulates toxic compounds, including chemo drugs, in the workplace. That story first appeared on our web site, on msnbc.com, The Seattle Times and in a documentary we co-produced with KCTS 9.

In addition, a measure banning toxic pavement sealants also was signed into law by the governor. That effort came after InvestigateWest  wrote about the issue just over a year ago. With the governor’s signature, Washington state became the first state in the nation to ban the sealants, joining a handful of smaller governments across the nation that have taken similar steps. That work appeared on our web site and on msnbc.com.

Governor signs precedent-setting healthcare worker safety laws

Laws that would improve safety for workers who handle chemotherapy and other toxic drugs on the job and also establish a way to track occupational links to cancer were signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The companion bills are the first of their kind nationally, and could serve as a model for other states, said Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers. Borwegen called it a “great day” and said other states have a history of looking to Washington for templates on worker safety legislation.

“It is very important, and we’re the first state to do it” said Michael Silverstein, head of Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “I would hope this would prod the federal government to do something similar.”

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by stories by InvestigateWest on hazardous drug handling practices that appeared in the Seattle Times, on KCTS-9 and on MSNBC.com in July, 2010. The stories showed that lack of regulation was resulting in workplace contamination, potentially exposing workers to dangerous levels of chemotherapy agents and other hazardous drugs. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy. McDiarmid and other safety researchers have been pushing for decades to get tougher rules protecting workers who handle these drugs.

InvestigateWest’s reporting fuels two worker safety bills to be signed by governor Wednesday

Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign two bills Wednesday  that will help protect healthcare workers from dangerous drug exposures, making Washington the first state in the country to have enforceable safe-handling standards.

The lawmaking has gotten the attention of the federal government as well, which this week issued a letter to healthcare workplaces, advising them to update their safety practices. The letter, signed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and The Joint Commission (the national hospital accreditation agency), highlighted the potential for serious adverse occupational health effects.

“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy.

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices, which showed that lack of workplace regulation was resulting in workplace contamination and worker exposures. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

SB 5594, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, requires the state to regulate chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs by creating a safe-handling standard for healthcare workplaces. “It is unacceptable that health-care workers risk exposure to deadly chemicals on a daily basis while on the job.  This measure could literally save lives by requiring the development of workplace safety standards for these professionals,” Kohl-Welles said.

Senate passes two health-care worker safety bills prompted by InvestigateWest reporting

Two bills sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices passed unanimously through the Washington State Senate this week.

SB 5594 requires the state to establish a workplace standard regulating the handling of chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs. The standards would create safety rules to protect workers who come in contact with hazardous drugs, including chemotherapy agents. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduced the bill, which if signed into law could set precedents for other states.

“We’re on the cusp of obtaining a law that would be the first in the country to regulate hazardous drugs,” said Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union in Washington D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers. Borwegen was part of National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health team that issued a strongly worded alert to healthcare workers about the need for extreme caution in handling the dangerous drugs.

InvestigateWest’s reporting showed that workplaces continue to be contaminated by such substances, resulting in potential exposures for healthcare workers who handle them. Exposure to these drugs can cause cancer, organ damage, reproductive effects and other health problems.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” said Ellie Menzies, Legislative Director for SEIU 1199 NW, which represents 22,000 healthcare workers in the state. “If we get this passed here, it will definitely help at the federal level.”

Worker safety advocates and occupational health experts have been trying for decades to get safety regulation to protect the millions of oncology nurses, pharmacists, technicians, janitors, and other service workers who are potentially exposed to unsafe drugs in the workplace.

Daughter of cancer victim to testify before lawmakers today

Chelsea Crump, daughter of oncology pharmacist Sue Crump, testifies today in Olympia on SB 5594, a bill that would regulate the handling of hazardous drugs by health-care workers. Chelsea’s mother, Sue Crump, died of pancreatic cancer after longtime workplace exposure to toxic chemotherapy, which InvestigateWest Carol Smith covered in a July investigation.

On Jan. 17, Sen. Karen Keiser introduced SB 5149, which would require that the state cancer registry capture occupational data from cancer patients.

InvestigateWest’s reporting brings health-care worker safety focus in Legislature

Washington legislators plan to push this session to strengthen worker safety protections for health-care workers who handle chemotherapy drugs on the job, and to provide better tracking of cancers that develop from occupational exposures.

On Jan. 17, Sen. Karen Keiser introduced the first of the bills, SB 5149, which would require that the state cancer registry capture occupational data from cancer patients.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chair of the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee, has drafted legislation that will create an occupational safety standard for oncology clinics and other places where chemo is used.

Both bills were developed in response to InvestigateWest’s investigation last year exposing the ongoing risk to health-care workers who handle chemotherapy for their jobs. The story appeared on our Web site, and in The Seattle Times, on MSNBC.com, and in an investigative report co-produced with KCTS 9 in Seattle.

“Chemotherapy drugs have been classified as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) since the mid-1980s, yet we still do not have adequate workplace safety protections in place for health-care workers who handle these powerful drugs on a daily basis,” Kohl-Welles said.  “This important legislation addresses the problem by establishing occupational safety standards that are specific to chemo-containing drugs.”

Such a standard, which does not exist at the federal level, would give state regulators the legal authority to crack down on lax safety practices, she said.

Lawmakers to take up health-care worker safety following InvestigateWest reporting

Washington legislators plan to introduce two bills this session to strengthen worker safety protections for health-care workers who handle chemotherapy drugs on the job, and to provide better tracking of cancers that develop from occupational exposures.

Sen. Karen Keiser plans to introduce legislation to mandate that the state cancer registry capture occupational data from cancer patients.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chair of the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee, is introducing legislation that will create an occupational safety standard for oncology clinics and other places where chemo is used.

Both bills were developed in response to InvestigateWest’s investigation last year exposing the ongoing risk to health-care workers who handle chemotherapy for their jobs.

“Chemotherapy drugs have been classified as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) since the mid-1980s, yet we still do not have adequate workplace safety protections in place for health-care workers who handle these powerful drugs on a daily basis,” Kohl-Welles said.  “This important legislation addresses the problem by establishing occupational safety standards that are specific to chemo-containing drugs.”

Such a standard, which does not exist at the federal level, would give state regulators the legal authority to crack down on lax safety practices, she said.

Kohl-Welles said that since InvestigateWest’s series she has had several meetings with Department of Health as well as the Department of Labor & Industries representatives to discuss chemo safety issues and was not satisfied with the worker protections they described. “Specifically, according to their presentations, there’s nothing in place to ensure as best as possible protections for workers other than following federal guidelines which don’t have teeth in them.”

The story behind “Lifesaving Drugs, Deadly Consequences.”

When InvestigateWest Executive Director Rita Hibbard and I first met Sue and Chelsea Crump, Sue was suffering from cancer that she and Chelsea suspected may have been triggered by her long history of handling chemotherapy. The tip rang a bell for Rita, who recalled mention years earlier of studies indicating oncologists got certain cancers at higher rates. When Rita asked me to look into the story, it triggered a strong association for me as well. My grandmother had served as an Army nurse in WWI near the trenches in France. Many years later, I remember her recounting the horror of treating young soldiers blistered and burned by mustard gas, the precursor of today’s cancer drugs. I understood their power.

 Between the four of us, we believed there was at least the seed of a story worth examining. That early conversation led to InvestigateWest’s year-long investigation. The story was widely published and broadcast, receiving strong national attention.  It has triggered discussions at state and national levels of how to improve regulation to keep healthcare workers safe.

Through the last two years, Chelsea underwent two profound role reversals. She was a student who became a source, and a daughter who became her mother’s caregiver. Today she is finishing a double major at Western Washington University and learning to live without her mom for the first time. She is the reason we know her mother’s story. This, in her own words, is her own story:

My Mother’s Story: A Daughter’s Journey

By Chelsea Crump

Q&A with Jordan Barab, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Labor for OSHA

Read the whole package here.

We asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration Jordan Barab what the agency charged with protecting American workers is doing to protect healthcare workers on the job. Here’s what he had to say.

Note: These answers, presented in their entirety, were in written response to questions submitted by InvestigateWest after multiple attempts to obtain comment from OSHA for these stories. 

 

Q. Why are there OSHA standards that specifically relate to other healthcare workplace dangers, such as radiation, and other hazardous chemicals, such as sterilizing agents or benzene, but not for hazardous drugs?

A. The process of setting regulatory priorities for new standards is always a challenging one for OSHA because there are so many serious safety and health hazards facing the Nation’s workers across all the industries in our very diverse economy.  In determining the best course of action to correct a particular hazard, OSHA must take a variety of issues into account, including resource limitations, because standards promulgation is such an intensive and lengthy process.  The Department of Labor publishes its Regulatory Agenda twice each year to notify the public of its priorities.

The Widow Speaks

By Carol Smith

InvestigateWest

Read the whole package here.

Bruce Harrison had been an oncology pharmacist since the late 1970s. He had seen the evolution – or lack of it – in safety awareness during that time, but he spent much of his career trying to change attitudes toward safe practices through research.

Harrison, who for years was a clinical pharmacy specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, was also one of the authors of the strictest set of voluntary guidelines, issued in 2004 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for the safe handling of chemo and other hazardous drugs for healthcare workers.

Practices that, had they been in place throughout his career, might have saved his own life.

Harrison died at age 59 in St. Louis in August of a rare form of oral cancer. He had never smoked, or chewed tobacco. He had no other known risk factors, except he had mixed a lot of chemo for other people in his career as a pharmacist.

He discussed it with his doctor.

“There was no way they could prove it, but the two of them decided it could be related,” said his widow, Kathy Harrison. “Bruce absolutely believed it was triggered by his exposure.”

She’s grateful her husband had a long career doing something he loved. She’s also sad, and frustrated, that it may have cost him his life.

And she worries it will cost others theirs.