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Grand Jury Has ‘Serious Concerns’ About Safety of Coroner’s Bureau

A report finds that the Santa Barbara County facility, built nearly 30 years ago, lacks proper ventilation, among other problems

The county Grand Jury has raised “serious concerns” about the safety of Santa Barbara County’s Coroner’s Bureau and has urged the Board of Supervisors to take action.
The county Grand Jury has raised “serious concerns” about the safety of Santa Barbara County’s Coroner’s Bureau and has urged the Board of Supervisors to take action. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury announced Wednesday that it has "serious concerns" about the safety of the Sheriff-Coroner's Bureau facility, and urged the county Board of Supervisors to take action to correct the situation.

The Grand Jury in its report raised the possibility that staff and the public could be exposed to airborne pathogens and fumes because the facility, which was built in 1987 by jail inmates for less than $100,000, does not have the proper ventilation systems.

About 150 autopsies a year are performed at the facility at 66 S. San Antonio Road, near the Goleta Cemetery.

Pathogens such as tuberculosis are a concern as the staff processes the bodies of the decedents, the jury said.

The report also found that staff members don't receive the proper training to deal with infectious diseases, and are not being tested for diseases they could be exposed to during the course of their work.

Both operational and facility modifications are needed to comply with Cal/OSHA standards, the report states.

“The distribution of fumes poses a major concern with communicable diseases, aerosol transmissible diseases and other pathogens,” Jury Foreperson Sandi Miller said in a statement on Wednesday.  

“Personnel and the public could be exposed to these dangers when procedures are performed on high risk cases such as tuberculosis and other airborne infectious diseases.”

A private company was contracted to perform a study, which estimated it would cost $130,000 to make the necessary ventilation system upgrades. That study was done after the 2012-13 Grand Jury raised similar concerns about the Coroner's Bureau.

In its response to the earlier report, the Board of Supervisors stated that "health and safety concerns identified through the facility condition assessment will be given high priority for funding," but no money has been set aside, according to the report.

Kelly Hoover, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, said the office has received the Grand Jury report and is in the process of evaluating it.

"During our preliminary review of the report, we have identified a number of findings that appear to be outdated due to prior implementation of previous recommendations," Hoover said.

The most significant Grand Jury facility concerns would require building a new coroner's facility, or drastically remodeling the existing building, she said, and the economic downturn has limited the ability to make such improvements.

"Nevertheless, throughout the past two years, we have worked with the CEO's office and Santa Barbara County General Services to address coroner's facility concerns, and will continue to do so in the future," Hoover said.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janet Wolf told Noozhawk Wednesday that she takes the reports of the Grand Jury "very seriously," and the board will be responding to the jury's findings.

At that point, "we'll have more information to present," she said, adding that in March, the General Services Department will present its Facility Condition Assessment Report, which looks at all county facilities.

Wolf said it's "likely" that the Sheriff-Coroner's Bureau will come up in that discussion.

One example of the potential danger the report gives is a Cal/OSHA investigation conducted in 1997, which revealed that seven Los Angeles County Coroner's employees were infected with tuberculosis due to improper ventilation after a bone saw had been used on bodies infected with tuberculosis.

Such cases require a negative-air-pressure room and use of air-purifying respirators, which aren't available, so cases that have potential for airborne infectious diseases must be referred to an out-of-county coroner's facility.

To deal with the lack of air flow and smells from the facility, staff have created a makeshift solution by using a fan and keeping the door open in the autopsy room during procedures, which allows contaminated air to escape from the facility, the report states.

There also is no testing protocol to make sure staff haven't been exposed to diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis, or to check for formaldehyde levels.

The staff is also at risk without the proper safety equipment when processing the bodies of intravenous drug users or the homeless, the jury found.

"The bureau does not have the necessary equipment to complete its work safely," the report states.

Supervisor Salud Carbajal said that the facilities report discussion next month will be a chance to review top priorities, of which safety of employees must be one.

"We need to make sure we're providing our employees a safe and hazard-free working environment," he said, adding that work has been done since the last Grand Jury report was issued.

"The ball has been rolling... I just wish we would have done more sooner," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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