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County Supervisors Discuss Grand Jury’s ‘Serious Concerns’ About Safety of Coroner’s Office

The board votes to revisit its response and how to fund any improvements, including better ventilation for employees facing exposure to airborne pathogens

The facility housing the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office was built in 1987 by jail inmates for less than $100,000 and doesn’t have proper ventilation systems.
The facility housing the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office was built in 1987 by jail inmates for less than $100,000 and doesn’t have proper ventilation systems. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County supervisors discussed Tuesday how they'll respond to a Grand Jury report issued earlier this year about the safety of the county's Coroner's Office.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately voted to come back and revisit some of the items next week, and to discuss how to fund the improvements in June when they talk about the county's capital improvement projects.

In February, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury announced that it had "serious concerns" about the safety of the Sheriff-Coroner's Office facility, and urged the county leaders to take action.

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 proper ventilation systems.

About 150 autopsies a year are performed at the facility at 66 S. San Antonio Road, near the Goleta Cemetery, and 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, that the facility was not up to Cal/OSHA standards, and that staff often left the door open to deal with poor ventilation, sending anything in the air inside the building into the outside world.

“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," jury forewoman Sandi Miller said at the time.

The Grand Jury had raised concerns about the ventilation in the building three years ago, but no money was set aside for the changes.

The Sheriff's Department has responded to seven of the findings of the grand jury, and the county supervisors were to respond to two findings: that the building does not comply to code, and that the facility doesn't have the negative air pressure needed to remove infectious diseases.

Budget director Tom Alvarez said the county partially disagreed with the findings, because the county could comply with code if respirators were used by employees. 

Staff also said a previous report done by Roy Jorgensen Associates found the facility's ventilation poor, but not inadequate.

The Jorgensen report did not mandate repair significant enough to require replacement, staff said, adding that they intend to do some work to the ventilation system in 2015-16 with maintenance funding.

Several supervisors, including Salud Carbajal, seemed impatient with the response.

"How soon are we going to address these issues?" he asked, saying that asking employees to put on respiratory systems is not a long-term solution. "I don't get the sense that we're working with a sense of urgency to alleviate this environment for the staff that work there."

Supervisor Peter Adam expressed concern that the building was not built to code from the beginning, which would create a challenge for future improvements.

"There are many things that are not even retrofittable," he said. "I would not get hung up on the grand jury report because we're going to answer them the same way we did last time. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"

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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