Report: State Lab safe, but ‘threats’ remain

December 28, 2012
By

FOREST HILLS—The William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute meets standards for safety and quality, but also has management “threats” that could cause future problems, according to an independent report obtained by the Gazette.

Those “threats” include a lack of an overall lab safety program, flawed employee reviews and a lack of a full-time, dedicated “quality assurance” supervisor, according to the Nov. 23 report from the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL).

The State Lab at 305 South St. is the site of this summer’s drug-evidence testing scandal, where former chemist Annie Dookhan is accused of deliberately mishandling evidence in thousands of criminal cases and lying about holding a master’s degree. Dookhan also previously worked at a vaccine-making lab in the same building, and a former coworker previously told the Gazette that Dookhan lied about her degree and ignored minor rules there.

The drug-evidence lab was shut down earlier this year, but 17 other labs operate within the State Lab building. Their work includes testing suspected bioterrorism materials, checking racehorses for doping, and examining animals for rabies and West Nile Virus.

The APHL investigation, which included a three-day visit in October, found that the State Lab has a “fully functional” quality assurance program. All of the labs are accredited and meet acceptable standards, the report says.

But the State Lab needs to fix management issues that could affect quality, the report says. It points to several issues that clearly enabled the drug lab scandal to happen.

The State Lab apparently has no overall lab safety program, which each individual lab setting its own standards, and has no dedicated employee overseeing quality assurance, the report found.

“The HSLI [State Lab] should have a safety program specifically for its operations,” the report says. “Laboratory safety is not just for the workers and other occupants in the building. Unsafe procedures that lend to contamination can also contaminate work and lend to a host of quality problems.”

A system for reviewing the performance of employees is “inconsistently applied…and at worst, not applied in any meaningful way at all,” the report says.

Communication among the various labs and between workers and managers is poor, the report says. It also says the State Lab has too many managers with too little quality-assurance training.

The former drug lab “isolated itself from the rest of the organization” and did not participate at all in the State Lab’s overall quality assurance program, the report found. The drug lab also was unaccredited, as the Gazette previously reported.

One of the 17 labs, which is not named, lacks a fully updated laboratory information system (LIS). That is a computer program that compiles all of a lab’s testing information in one place for easy access and review. Among other things, a good LIS is “critical to the success of any public health laboratory in responding to public health emergencies,” the report says.

The Gazette for months has sought State Lab safety inspection and accrediting reports from the state Department of Public Health (DPH). The department responded in October with a request for more than $400 to search records, without saying whether any existed or mentioning that the APHL investigation was under way. The APHL report is dated Nov. 23, 2012 and stamped as received by DPH on Dec. 6, but was not provided to the Gazette until Dec. 28. The report can be viewed online at scribd.com/doc/118245065/APHL-State-Lab-Report.