BIOSAFETY DANGERS IN THE RECOMBINANT DNA LABORATORY
What do I do? Where do I go for help?
Before you go to anyone, the first and foremost issue to remember is to PROTECT YOURSELF by wearing protective gear (gloves, safety glasses & labcoat) while in the laboratory at all times. This unfortunately will not protect you fully in certain instances. For example, if your co-workers use techniques that create aerosolized particles, you will need a respirator. Protection can be impossible also if you are designated to have your office directly in the laboratory where you are not afforded personal protection. If this is the case, ask (nicely demand?) your supervisor for an office outside the lab.
UNSAFE BIOLOGICAL LAB PRACTICES ARE DANGEROUS
Do not take your observations of unsafe biosafety practices or unauthorized use of biological agents lightly. Recombinant BL2 (biosafety level 2) DNA labs at your local university or pharmaceutical company are now quite dangerous. Many scientists working in molecular biology BL2 labs do not even realize the dangerous work that is occurring around them. It is now common practice for BL2 research laboratories to generate genetically engineered viruses in order to make specific disease-state cellular or animal models. These viruses can be engineered to contain VSV-G coats enabling the virus to become broadly infectious to human’s eyes, mouth, and through inhalation. Not only can they infect humans this way, but also, other mammals and insects.
Despite your best efforts to protect yourself, you may still be at a high risk for exposure. If your co-workers are not trained (which many are not), not technically skilled or a just plain careless regarding safety protocol, you could be in danger. Also someone might actually bring in an infectious agent into your workspace without notifying you. It can happen. Always protect yourself as best as you can.
GO TO YOUR SUPERVISOR
If you have seen one unsafe lab practice, know many more violations have been performed that you have not seen. It is very dangerous. You must bring these issues forward to your supervisor. If your supervisor does not address and correct the issue(s) immediately (and it should be immediately…not a couple of weeks later), then you have a problem. Make sure that you now start documenting everything from this point forward.
QUIT YOUR JOB OR SECURE AN ATTORNEY
My advice to you at this time would be to quit your job. Getting sick from a biological agent or some “unknown” agent in the lab can cause permanent health problems. You also will have no rights to exposure records to obtain medical care. The research industry will not admit to any wrong doing. You will be abandoned, sick and may even be unable to work. It is not worth it. If your supervisor does not take your biosafety concerns seriously and with immediate action, leave your job if you are able.
If you have a wife, husband or kids to feed and cannot afford to quit your job, then you REALLY have a problem. You are in a sticky situation. The reason being is that there is no effective federal whistleblower’s protection to protect you from retaliation and black-listing. Going “above your boss” regarding addressing biosafety issues, places you in vulnerable situation no matter what. I guarantee, your boss will not be pleased and in fact will be very angry. I do not want to frighten you into doing nothing, to stay in a job and become sick; but before you start shooting fireworks about unaddressed safety issues or public health and safety issues you should be aware of how the system works .
Unfortunately at this point, after your supervisor does not address your safety concerns and you cannot afford to quit your job, it is time to seek council with an attorney to best protect yourself. Unfortunately, hiring an attorney will cost you money (between $300-$1000). But it is a necessary step in order to protect yourself.
Do not go to OSHA without consulting an attorney. There are four very real and negative issues regarding OSHA. 1) OSHA’s personnel are not sophisticated enough nor trained to understand recombinant DNA technologies. 2) OSHA provides little to no effective legal protection for today’s biotech worker, since it was originally legislated in 1975 and intended for chemical exposures. 3) OSHA has a history of negligence in duty 4) Going to OSHA can actually harm you further even when you bring forward legitimate biosafety and public health concerns to them.
Despite the fact that OSHA tells you that you do not need an attorney to file a complaint, it is unwise not to have one. Let your attorney advice you on how you should proceed at each step with them.
Bringing your safety complaints to NIH might be an avenue for those working in academia since academic laboratories are mandated to follow NIH guidelines. But always consult an attorney first. Again, you may very well get black-listed or retaliated against, if your workplace finds that you have contacted NIH. An NIH official might very well be friends with your boss. As you know, it is a small -closely networked world in the scientific community. Have an attorney to council you.
Private industry is not under any jurisdiction to follow NIH guidelines. So, if you work for a biotech company or pharmaceutical company, NIH cannot and will not help you. Seek legal advice immediately.
STATE HEALTH DEPARTMENT
Your state public health department may have some jurisdiction to help you. But again, be careful. Many of the state public health departments give favorable bias toward industries and research facilities that provide jobs in the state. The economy is in a tight position. And the entities that have the money, also have the power and unfortunately, “have the say” even in instances concerning public health and safety. Always seek legal advice before contacting a state agency regarding safety complaints.
If you suspect bioterrorism or unauthorized use in a recombinant BL2 lab, contact your attorney first. Then, contact the FBI.
Always have an attorney to help guide you. This is a very serious issue. It involves your health and your livelihood. If your place of employment is not taking your biosafety concerns seriously, you basically have three choices: quit your job, seek an attorney’s help or risk a serious illness with very little probability of obtaining adequate medical care. None are great choices. But you have no option but to play the cards you’re dealt. And then hang on.
If you have any further issues or questions or concerns, you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org