Medical-Waste Firm Hit With Violations -- Company Building State Treatment Plant Is Cited In Arkansas

Stericycle Inc., a company building Washington state's first medical-waste recycling plant in the Cascade foothills, has been slapped with 11 violations and nearly $1,600 in fines for unsafe working conditions at its Arkansas operation.

Stericycle is courting customers in King and Snohomish, among 17 counties in Washington state, to send medical waste to its planned treatment facility near Morton, Lewis County.

Seattle's Haller Lake-area residents have pointed to the company's technology as an option for Northwest Hospital to consider, rather than building a new incinerator.

Acting on information from anonymous tipsters - including one employee at the Arkansas facility - an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector uncovered a number of federal violations, including:

-- Employees did not have laboratory coats, boot covers, masks or other protective gear to shield them from body-fluid spills when they unloaded leaking containers of medical waste onto conveyor belts.

-- Body parts, fetuses and dead experimental animals - pathological waste the company accepts as a convenience to its clients - were stored, until incineration, in an unmarked cooler, putting employees at risk.

-- Employees were not informed of health hazards posed by a number of materials, including yellow marking paint, used there. The paint - which contains material that causes cumulative neurological effects and reproductive problems - was not included on a list of hazardous materials at the workplace.

-- Because workers were potentially exposed to hazards by the yellow paint, tainted needles, blood and body fluids, they have the right to inspect records such as reports of industrial injury. Stericycle did not tell them so upon hiring them and once a year thereafter, as required by law.

-- Full-face respirators handed out to filter air could have put some workers at greater risk of heart or lung ailments. An OSHA inspector found that Stericycle did not conduct necessary physical examinations of employees before handing out the air-filtering devices.

The violations, four termed serious by OSHA because they could cause serious harm or death, were considered minorby Stericycle spokeswoman Paulina Hewett.

For instance, OSHA asked for bleach, something the company considered a household item, to be listed on the company's hazardous-substance list. Employees are issued plastic aprons to protect them from spills, but because it was a hot day they were not wearing them on the day of the inspection, she said.

"I don't think there's any facility where OSHA has not found some violations," Hewett said. "We are trying to comply with OSHA and are trying to do everything right. But, of course, you don't get everything right the first time."

OSHA could have fined Stericycle thousands of dollars for violations at the 16-employee plant, opened last August.

Employees have lost 44 work days because of occupational-injury cases there, OSHA records state.

Because of the size of the company, its verbal safety program and history of no serious, willful or repeat violations in the last three years, 65 percent was shaved off immediately, according to OSHA. An informal settlement lowered the $1,575 fine to $900.

"The main reason for us reducing a penalty is to get the items abated . . . and get the protection that the employees need," said Paul J. Hansen Jr., OSHA area director in Little Rock.

The company is building a 25-ton-per-day capacity medical-waste treatment facility in Morton, a small timber-dependent town. The firm uses a dry-heat process similar to microwaving that raises the temperature of medical waste, killing disease-causing pathogens.