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Suit Brought for Wrongful Death of Lab Worker

San Francisco VA

In the same week that University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned on charges arising from the death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji, legal action has been taken in the lab-related death of another young research worker. The family of Richard Din, who died in April 2012 at the age of 25 after becoming infected with the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis while handling it at his job as a research associate at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, has brought a wrongful death suit "in excess of $20 million," reported the San Francisco Examiner on 10 May.

An investigation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uncovered "three serious violations for failing to protect laboratory workers researching" the bacterium, according to a statement issued in February. "Richard Din died because the VA failed to supervise and protect these workers adequately. … Research hospitals and medical centers have the responsibility as employers to protect workers from exposure to recognized on-the-job hazards such as this," declared OSHA's San Francisco regional administrator Ken Atha in the statement.

Richard Din died because the VA failed to supervise and protect these workers adequately.

—Ken Atha, in OSHA statement

The three violations, which OSHA characterized as "serious," were failing to "require workers to use a safety enclosure when performing microbiological work with a viable bacteria culture; provide training on the signs and symptoms of illnesses as a result of employee exposure to a viable bacteria culture, such as meningitis; and provide available vaccines for workers potentially exposed to bacteria." A violation is deemed "serious" when it entails the "substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known." Din and others worked with the dangerous bacterium without a proper protective enclosure, OSHA says, even though one "was available in the lab," according to U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Deanne Amaden, as quoted in another Examiner article.

Employed by the Northern California Institute of Research and Education while he worked at the VA, Din was considered a VA employee because of arrangements between the two organizations. Under federal law, federal workplaces must meet the same occupational safety standards as private employers. OSHA ordered the medical center to correct the deficiencies but lacks the authority to impose fines on a federal entity.

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