Confidential state report, released Friday, reveals more than a dozen dangerous violations at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office. Phil Rogers reports.
A confidential state labor department report on conditions at the Cook County Morgue finds nearly two dozen violations, ranging from the potential for falling bodies, to improper vaccination procedures for employees, to the potential for blood and body fluids to be splattered around areas where employees worked.
The report stems from Labor Department inspections at the morgue, conducted between January 26, and June 5.
While the report offers a critical analysis of sanitation and safety procedures in the morgue, it is not a surprise to County Officials who had been briefed on the investigators findings.
“We’d had a conference call with them,” said chief administrative officer Robin Kelly. “ We knew most of the things that were coming down.”
To the uninitiated, however, the report offers another macabre view, of a medical examiner’s office which already had become steeped in controversy.
“The employer did not minimize splashing, spraying, spattering, and generation of droplets of blood…during autopsy procedures,” the report notes in one section. Another cites the danger of falling bodies from racks in the morgue’s cooler.
“Bodies, trays, or both have fallen in the past,” it notes. “The hazard was causing, or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
The report said the morgue “did not provide reasonable protection to the lives, health, and safety” of employees. In one section, the investigators said they found that “the employer allowed eating and drinking in an area where there is a reasonable likelihood of occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens.”
All told, the Labor Department investigation cited 21 discrepancies in morgue procedures, some labeled “serious”. The violations range from improper use of respirators and inadequate eye washing stations in autopsy rooms, to inadequate infection control procedures for employees. Last week the County announced a Hepatitis B vaccination program for morgue employees, as part of a series of reforms.
“We had a bloodborne pathogen policy,” Kelly said. “We’ve updated that. That’s posted. But infectious disease policy, just the safety policies in general, so we’ll have a comprehensive plan.
Kelly said while some employees were vaccinated by their own doctors previously, shots were now being offered to everyone.
“I have people on my staff that don’t work there normally,” Kelly said. “But they go there enough and they’re getting the shots too.”
The horror stories from the morgue began circulating in January, when photos were leaked depicting hundreds of bodies stacked in coolers and even hallways. Several families stepped forward saying they had been unable to locate the remains of their loved ones, only to learn they had been in the morgue for weeks. While many of the problems pre-dated the Preckwinkle administration, the county board President has moved swiftly to try to control the controversy.
Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones resigned her position last week. Four employees have been terminated, and eight others have been disciplined.
“There were a lot of good people that worked there but we didn’t do enough as far as discipline on people who didn’t come to work on time and didn’t carry out their responsibilities,” Kelly said. “And if that would have been done, some of the issues we have run into would not have happened.”