A new public report from outside experts assessing laboratory safety at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) comes down severely on the government agency.
In 2014 and early 2015, the CDC was the site of a series of mishaps, from a lab technician the agency thought was potentially exposed to live Ebola virus through an accidental tube swap to the possible release of anthrax. In response, the agency formed an external laboratory safety workgroup to assess the CDC’s internal protocols and provide advice and recommendations. The CDC just publically posted the report, which describes the CDC’s commitment to safety as “inconsistent and insufficient at multiple levels,” to its website.
“Safety is not integrated into strategic planning and is not currently part of the CDC culture, enterprise-wide,” the report says. “Interviews and surveys demonstrated that many employees neither understand the agency’s response to accidents nor how that information is communicated to the larger agency community outside immediately affected labs.”
The authors write that “disturbingly” many of these responses were among people who work in the CDC’s highest biosafety level labs. “Laboratory safety training is inadequate,” the report authors write, adding that across the CDC, workers say they fear negative repercussions for reporting instances where there may have been an exposure to hazardous material. Staff at the CDC view the Environment, Safety, and Health Compliance Office (ESHCO)—the office meant to protect CDC workers and create a safe working environment—as having “inadequate expertise” in lab safety, the report says.
The report makes recommendations, like “staffing [ESHCO] with scientists with professional qualifications in research and/or laboratory safety” and establishing consistent safety practices across the agency.
“CDC concurs with these recommendations, has made progress towards implementing them, and will soon report on that progress,” the CDC says in a statement on its website. “CDC’s aim is to improve the culture of laboratory safety across the agency and minimize the risks associated with laboratory work.”
“It should be noted that although the [workgroup] presented its findings to the full committee in January, it began its review of CDC’s laboratories last August and did the bulk of its assessment at CDC in August and September,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told TIME. “So the said report reflects observations of the workgroup made several months ago.”
Skinner the CDC has made progress, and is implementing actions to “address the root causes of recent incidents and to provide redundant safeguards across the agency.” Some of these changes include establishing new positions for lab safety oversight and implementing new training procedures and safety protocols.