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Union urges probe of health hazards at 2 VA facilities

Jun. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By | By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

The American Federation of Government Employees is calling for an investigation into high levels of a potentially deadly bacterium at two Veterans Affairs Department facilities.

The union, in a letter sent to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Tuesday, said high levels of legionella — which can cause the pneumonia-like illness Legionnaires’ disease — were detected at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, Pa., and at a contractor facility in Washington County, Pa., and could be present at other locations.

AFGE accused VA of failing in its duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace for its employees and to properly maintain its legionella eradication equipment. The union also said the VA was not prompt in alerting employees to the presence of legionella. In Altoona, employees were alerted to the presence of the bacteria on May 29, about three weeks after its discovery by management. The VA has also not done enough to prevent the spread of the bacteria, the union said. AFGE is also asking that OSHA conduct an independent investigation into safety procedures at VA facilities.

“Hospital employees are on the front-lines of providing care to our veterans and it is essential that the agency provide a safe environment for patients and staff,” AFGE national president J. Davis Cox said in a news release.

Keith Hill, AFGE District 3 national vice president, said VA cannot afford a repeat of the legionella outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center from 2010 to 2012, which killed five veterans and sickened employees and other patients. The outbreak was also the subject of a Feb. 5 congressional hearing.

“It is critical that employees are notified immediately of any concerns of this magnitude so that they can protect themselves and our nation’s heroes. Leaving healthcare workers in the dark puts our veterans at risk,” Hill said in a news release.

Andrea Young, spokeswoman for the Altoona medical center, said in a statement the facility recently assessed its water supply and found extremely low levels of a form of legionella bacteria that does not cause Legionnaires’ disease.

The water system was cleaned with chlorine, destroying all traces of the bacteria, she said.

“Our water is currently safe and has been safe to use and drink,” Young said.

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