ATLANTA, Ga. -
We can do better. That was the consensus from outside scientists reacting to some surprising pictures a former contractor says he took inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The FOX 5 I-Team obtained the photos showing sloppy conditions at what's considered the leading public health institution in the country. The pictures were taken by someone working for a private company hired by the CDC to maintain its buildings. Workers for Four Seasons Environmental are involved in a labor dispute, claiming the company put their safety at risk.
One of the videos showed a wooden door outside a Level 3 high containment lab that someone sealed with painters tape and gobs of silicone caulk. A sign nearby said research was being conducted into the potentially fatal MERS virus.
"It was like a handmade Level 3 lab," remembered former Four Seasons contractor Jack Turner who took the pictures late one night in July, 2014. "Instead of properly closed, they sealed up the door."
Turner said he recorded the same sloppy repair technique on a seal for an autoclave. That's a machine used to disinfect equipment in the CDC's high containment labs in Building 18. The gaskets were dripping in silicone.
"To me, it's like putting duct tape on a space shuttle," compared Sean Kaufman. He's a former CDC researcher and infectious diseases expert who has his own consulting company, Behaviorial-Based Improvement Solutions in metro Atlanta.
"You are taking these images at the leading public institution in the United States of America," he pointed out. "We could do better than that. We can do better than that. If you're pulling out silicone sealants to seal doors and autoclaves, quite honestly, look. We can do better than that."
The CDC declined our offer to look at the pictures, saying the work here is risky and "keeping this risk to an absolute minimum is essential."
Contractor Four Seasons said it's "investigating any alleged safety issues to verify how they were resolved." Neither would answer specific questions about what Jack Turner said he saw while working the night shift in Building 18.
Last year, Four Seasons workers at the CDC voted to organize, complaining the company puts its workers at risk. Four Seasons challenged the legality of the vote and has refused to negotiate.
Everett Johnson said the company definitely put his safety at risk.
In December 2014, Johnson lost part of his finger while working on the roof of CDC Building 23. He said his supervisor moved a flashlight as Johnson was trying to slow down an exhaust fan.
"I knew there was some damage," he remembered. "but I didn't know how bad it was cause it happened so fast."
"You blame the company for this?"
"Yeah, because I don't think I should have been out there, in the dark, at night."
The next morning they found his fingertip and stitched it back on.
"Preventive maintenance should have waited," Johnson insisted. "And it should have been daylight."
Four Seasons would not answer questions about what happened to Johnson. Last month, the company fired Jack Turner, the man who shot all those late-night pictures and videos.
In recent years, the CDC has had to explain a string of embarrassing safety mishaps, including potentially exposing unprotected staff in Building 18 to live anthrax. Last October, an outside review of the CDC found "apprehension about the possibility of retribution if staff, especially contractors, report accidents or safety concerns." It encouraged the CDC to "work on building trust..."
But consultant Kaufman said not wanting to look at a worker's evidence... is a bad sign for progress.
"If the CDC is in this active state of improving its safety programs, and they get a call from someone who says we have some images that we think are of great concern.... you may be interested in them. And they say we're not interested in seeing them, that to me is an indicator that yet again the Agency is not necessarily wanting to take steps forward to address safety concerns."
FOUR SEASONS ENVIRONMENT FULL STATEMENT TO THE FOX 5 I-TEAM:
"For over two decades, Four Seasons Environmental, Inc. (“FSE”) has been contracted to perform operations and maintenance services for the CDC. All questions and request for information regarding the safety and security of personnel at CDC facilities should be addressed to (and coordinated through) the CDC OD-Office of the Assistant Director for Communications (OADC). Any request for information regarding FSE’s affiliations with labor unions should be addressed to FSE as such matters are handled strictly between FSE and the labor unions."