State job-safety inspectors have fined a Tarzana hospital nearly $5,000 after a technician was exposed to a suspected cancer-causing gas leaking from a machine used to sterilize surgical instruments.
But Cal-OSHA officials dropped more than $12,000 in additional fines against Tarzana Regional Medical Center after deciding that they could not prove that the hospital didn’t have proper mechanical controls to prevent future leaks, a spokesman said.
The hospital was cited Oct. 2 for 18 violations of state worker-protection laws, including five repeat offenses. Cal-OSHA officials Tuesday released details of the citations, which carried $17,100 in potential fines.
Cal-OSHA said ethylene oxide gas, which is associated with higher rates of cancer in people, accidentally leaked from the instrument sterilizer three times in May and July. Three workers at the 600-employee hospital were possibly exposed to the gas, but only one had any symptoms, state officials said.
During a May 28 leak, hospital technician Margarita Luna entered the sterilizer room without wearing an emergency respirator, Cal-OSHA said. Luna experienced tingling in her fingers and toes but the symptoms later disappeared, according to hospital officials.
Following a five-day inspection last summer, the hospital was cited for, among other things, not having sufficient engineering controls on the sterilizer to prevent other leaks, an offense punishable by a $10,000 fine. This was a repeat offense.
The hospital was also cited for not supplying employees with respirators, not training them about hazardous substances on the job and failing to notify state officials within 24 hours of an employee’s exposure to ethylene oxide.
But hospital officials later told Cal-OSHA that they had made a number of repairs to the sterilizing machine before and after the gas seepages, including fixing an electrical short and a faulty door gasket.
After two hospital executives met Oct. 31 with Cal-OSHA’s Van Nuys district manager, Ed Grimes, the agency dropped the $10,000 citation and another citation charging that the hospital had not properly monitored employees’ exposure to possible gas releases.
Grimes refused to discuss the action. But Cal-OSHA media spokesman Rick Rice said the $10,000 citation was canceled because the agency felt that it couldn’t legally defend its allegation that the hospital didn’t have sufficient engineering controls on the sterilizer. Employers cited by Cal-OSHA have the right to appeal in court.
“They actually did have engineering controls, but the controls failed,” he said. “I guess we just have to say that it was felt that the citation was not legally supportable upon appeal.”
John Jeffries, senior vice president of the hospital, said the hospital will probably pay the remaining fines without filing an appeal.
He said the sterilizer, which was shut down after the leaks, has been working properly for the past four to six weeks. He said the ethylene oxide gas used to sterilize surgical instruments evaporates and poses no danger to patients.