OSHA cites hospital on formaldehyde

Path lab is source of complaint

Concerns about formaldehyde exposure in a laboratory of New York Hospital Queens led to $112,500 in fines and two citations for alleged "willful" violations from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Lab workers, including pathology assistants and oral pathology residents, were exposed to formaldehyde while cutting specimens in the "grossing room" of the pathology lab. According to OSHA, formaldehyde exposure can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and asthma-like respiratory problems.

An OSHA inspection found that the hospital did not promptly monitor the employees' exposure and did not ensure that employees working with a formaldehyde solution participated in a training program, which resulted in citations for "willful" violations, the highest level that can be issued by the agency. According to OSHA, a willful violation is "one committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and regulations."

"They are the most severe category and they are given relatively infrequently," says OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald.

OSHA also issued citations for three "serious" violations. The agency said the hospital did not administer a medical disease questionnaire or provide medical surveillance to employees experiencing "signs and symptoms indicative of possible overexposure to formaldehyde."

OSHA stated that an environmental engineering firm conducted monitoring and registered vapor levels of 5.52 ppm; the short-term exposure limit for formaldehyde is 2 ppm over a 15-minute period.

The hospital also was cited for failing to repeat the monitoring when there was a change in personnel or change in the HVAC system and failing to notify affected employees of the monitoring results.

New York Hospital Queens has contested the findings, citations, and penalties, says Camela Morrissey, vice president of public affairs and marketing. "We believe that we're going to be able to provide the necessary evidence to have any citations and penalties removed," she says.

The OSHA inspection originated with an employee complaint that was not union-related. Nonetheless, the Service Employees International Union plans to meet with hospital administrators to discuss the formaldehyde exposures, says Steve Schrag, Eastern Region Hazmat Program coordinator for the union. "My goal is to get the problems fixed," he says.