LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Nevada OSHA’s role in protecting local workers is next-level critical now that exposure to COVID-19 is a serious concern.
But healthcare workers say the state agency has been failing them, forcing them to fend for themselves when the stakes are highest.
These new complaints came as 13 Investigates was already digging into allegations of corruption and collusion within OSHA.
13 Investigates uncovers a system some say is more about politics than protection.
“Nightmare. Definitely a nightmare. It's been a long road.”
Helen Armstrong worked at Ear Nose and Throat Associates for more than 20 years.
“I enjoyed working there. I really did,” Armstrong said.
Until she was promoted to front office supervisor. From that vantage point, she didn’t like what she saw.
“Instruments not being properly sterilized and sanitized between patients,” Armstrong explains. “Containers not being properly labeled. Medicines being stored where food is stored in refrigerators. The list just goes on and on.”
Things she says put patients and staff at risk.
“Reuse of needles and improper sterilization of instruments can lead to hepatitis. It could lead to AIDS. It could lead to death,” Armstrong said. “That's a real concern in the medical field.”
For Armstrong, the concern was as close as it was real because the clinic she worked for was in a building on Shadow Lane. The same building as the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada where a patient died after a Hepatitis-C outbreak in 2007.
In that case, Dr. Dipak Desai was charged with criminal neglect after several patients were infected due to reused medical equipment. Desai was found guilty in October 2013 on 27 counts, including second-degree murder. Two nurse anesthetists in Desai's office also went to prison.
“After seeing what went on down there, I became a little concerned with our office,” said Armstrong. “Because, again, I had documented everything. Some of these things are going on in our office.”
Armstrong and another staffer made the difficult decision to blow the whistle on their employer.
“I approached the doctors on several of these items and nothing was ever done,” said Armstrong.
Nevada OSHA investigated their complaint in February 2014, which resulted in serious violations and fines. Helen says her employers suspected her of filing the complaint and retaliated immediately.
That’s why she filed another complaint for whistleblower protection.
But she withdrew that one after she was diagnosed with cancer, hoping things would smooth over so she could keep her job and health insurance.
OSHA's Chief Whistleblower Investigator, Lara Pelligrini, sent a letter acknowledging her withdrawal.
But to Armstrong's shock, Pellegrini also CC'd her employers.
Armstrong was officially exposed as the whistleblower.
“I expected OSHA to protect me,” Armstrong explained. “That’s what I expected.”
Instead, she says things got worse.
“I was treated terribly in the office after the doctors were informed of the situation.”
On top of that, she claims NV OSHA tried to cover up its mistake.
“I was really shocked on how everything was handled with OSHA. Just was dumbfounded.”
She isn't alone.
“That's why I left in the early part of February, 2016,” says former Nevada OSHA investigator Rick Lucas who was assigned to Armstrong's case.
“When you're doing an investigation you want facts from both parties. Armstrong was very forthright with the information they had and what they presented,” says Lucas. “The employer, however, was not forthright.”
The former Nevada OSHA investigator kept pushing.
“I submitted the subpoena request for the counsel from OSHA. That was written up, given to me and then I was forced to wait for more time to pass. And then at some point, yeah, Jess Lankford came to me and said, 'We're not going to do the subpoena.’"
Jess Lankford is Chief Administrative Officer of Nevada OSHA. 13 Investigates obtained phone recordings of Lankford talking to Seth Isaacs, Helen’s advocate, where Lankford seems to acknowledge OSHA’s error.
“It was a mistake, but it also reaffirmed Helen's protected rights because it brings them all together. We notify the employer and employer turns around and does it again.” Lankford said.
“And all of sudden this wave of… discrimination and retaliatory effort came through. It was based on that letter.”
Armstrong says all her efforts were for naught, as she was fired in November 2014.
“The system has definitely failed me and I’m sure …and I just pray to god it hasn’t happened to anyone else.”
The doctor who Armstrong worked for wouldn't go on camera or talk to us in detail. He only said "We did what we thought was right" regarding the case.
For Armstrong, it turned out all wrong.
“I lost my home. I lost my family. I lost everything.”
With an OSHA investigator quitting in protest and the state’s top OSHA official admitting mistakes and confirming Helen’s rights, you'd think she would be protected. That is OSHA’s mission after all. But in my next report, you’ll see how Helen’s case takes a darker turn which critics say effectively strips all Nevada workers of any whistleblower protections.
The Nevada Department of Business and Industry provided the following statement:
"Business and Industry is a diverse department encompassing worker protection, occupational regulation and licensing, consumer protection, small business advocacy and economic development, and affordable housing. All of these things can and do exist under the umbrella of one department without conflict. It is our view that successful business operation necessitates a business to be in in compliance with all existing local, county, state and federal requirements and regulations."
"A state workplace safety program is required to be “at least as effective” as the federal OSHA program. Federal OSHA performs oversight of state programs to ensure that this standard is being met and can require changes or modifications where the state program is not in compliance. In addition, while Nevada’s state plan closely monitors and mirrors the federal program in most aspects, Nevada OSHA does exceed federal requirements in a number of areas and has established those additional standards through the state’s regulatory process. The administration of a state programs also provides greater flexibility and speed in responding to workplace safety and health concerns that may arise. That flexibility and speed allowed Nevada OSHA to work closely with the Governor’s office to respond quickly to the COVID-19 public health crisis by developing and enforcing industry- and phase-specific guidance and directives."