3:02 pm - Sunday August 20, 2017

Investigation leads to changes at the state toxicology lab

As a result of an independent personnel investigation at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s toxicology laboratory, staff training is being revised and an interim manager has been assigned for toxicology lab operations.

The department contracted with Mountain States Employers Council in March to conduct an investigation and provide recommendations. Its investigation report was provided to the department March 18.

Department Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina said, “We have been working with the Attorney General’s Office continuously on this issue. The early advice was consistent with our recommendation that this was a personnel issue and therefore protected information. As more information became available the AG’s advice changed and it has released the investigation report with employee names redacted. We followed and accepted the legal advice.”

The state toxicology lab conducts blood-alcohol testing for law enforcement agencies when “driving under the influence” is suspected, and a blood sample is sent to the lab. The lab’s test results are provided to the law enforcement agency, and a second sample of the blood is provided for the individual whose blood was sampled, thus providing the individual the opportunity to have the blood sample re-tested by an independent lab.

Among the findings of the investigation, Mountain States Employers Council found the following:

  1. Lack of security of the blood-alcohol samples in an unlocked refrigerator:  Locks were placed on the refrigerators in March. Access is limited to unit staff. There are four levels of locks between the front door and the samples. The samples have tamper seals on them.
  2. Staff training inadequate:  A complete review of all staff training was completed including a review of training standards, training records and standard operating procedures. Training by a competency-assessed analyst is in use.  Staff competency is assessed after training and annually thereafter.
  3. Unit understaffed:  The department is in the process of hiring a new manager for the toxicology lab. The job was posted May 22, and applications were accepted through June 5. The new manager will evaluate the workflow in the lab and optimize daily activities to improve sampling turnaround time.
  4. Staff not adequately trained to provide court testimony:  All appropriate staff members have attended (or are scheduled to attend) training.  All staff had training sessions and mock court, conducted by Chris Halsor of the Colorado District Attorneys Council May 10.  Additional training will be scheduled.

Dr. Urbina said, “The Colorado state lab is one of the best in the nation. The lab’s work has been at the forefront of many investigations of foodborne outbreak and other diseases that has helped reduce the spread of illness. The work of the state lab is vital in helping protect the public health of Coloradans.”

In addition to the blood-alcohol testing performed at the toxicology lab, the department’s Laboratory Services Division supports public health activities with various other laboratory services including screening for newborn illnesses, breath alcohol and serum drug testing for law enforcement, bioterrorism surveillance, zooinotic disease testing (plague, West Nile Virus, hantavirus, avian flu), human disease testing (foodborne illnesses, TB, STDs, vaccine-preventable diseases), radiochemical and radiation testing, water and air testing, and milk testing.

Dr. Urbina said, “It is critical that the scientific work of the toxicology lab meets the highest standards, as members of the public and law enforcement rely on the lab to provide accurate blood-alcohol analysis of the samples we test. The investigation was conducted so improvements could be made.”

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