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UW Medical Center fined $54,000 over health safety violations

SEATTLE -- The state has slapped the University of Washington Medical Center with 12 citations and a $54,000 fine. It comes after a KOMO investigation into concerns about legionnaires exposure from workers inside a water cooling tower.

In all, the commission's inspection found 12 serious violations and one general violation for not addressing the Legionella risk and that workers were entering "permit-required confined spaces" without the proper understanding, knowledge and skill to ensure their safety, according to a spokesperson with the department of Labor and Industries.

The inspection and investigation came as a result of months of accusations and complaints over the potentially dangerous bacteria.

Sarah Bright, with the Washington Federation of State Employees, helped file a health hazard complaint against the medical center over allegations that repair workers, medical staff and patients weren't told about the growth of potentially dangerous bacteria in a cooling tower at the main hospital building. It was a growth that could lead to Legionnaires' disease.

"They've found green slime growing in one of the cooling towers," Bright said during our original report on the investigation in January.

She had been working with a group of center employees to push UW to tighten up testing protocols and ensure in the future, all employees be notified about any positive tests, no matter how small. The union shared the most recent test results with the Problem Solvers. The results, confirmed by UW, showed a small amount of legionella inside the cooling treatment tower in early October. The measurement came out to 180 CFU's per milliliter.

Both the testing lab and UW say that is far below the standard for concern, which is 1000 per milliliter.

"There have to be enough of the bacteria present to generate a threat," Jeff Duchin with the King County Health Department said in February.

Duchin says legionella is a water-borne bacteria that is very common. It spreads through mist, ingestion and vapor that thrive in warm water with little movement -- the exact conditions found in a water cooling tower.

"Naturally-occurring bodies of water as well as man-made water systems," Duchin said.

It can also cause a specific kind of pneumonia if it gets into your system.

The numbers weren't high enough for alarm this time, but union plumber rep Paula Lukaszek said she was worried about the potential for trouble if polices don't change.

"There's an issue from members that the university doesn't put time and energy into preventative maintenance," she said.

Threat or not, the union claimed in its complaint with the state that some workers had access to the tower even after the university knew legionella was present. The union also claimed some people at the center were never told about the bacteria.

The UW flatly denied that, telling KOMO 4 that all repair and maintenance work stopped immediately until the tower was treated.

At the union's prodding, warning signs were eventually put up more than a month after test results came back positive.

The school worked with a consultant for a long-term plan for cleanup and both sides say it's now completely clean. UW said it handled this whole case by the book while the union wanted more people to know the risks and potential danger.

"It's a question of what you do once it's discovered," Bright said.

The university has until June 26 to respond to the fines.

This isn't the first time legionella has been a concern for UW medical. The union provided emails that referenced a positive test in 2013 and in 1998, KOMO 4 reported on an outbreak with three cases and at least one death.

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