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Injured Pfizer Biotech Worker Gets Her Day In Court

Pfizer Molecular Biologist Becky McClain Challenges Corporation On Health And Safety And Systemic Cover-up Of Biotech Dangers To Her And The Public

By Steve Zeltzer

One of the industries that is getting a pass from the Obama administration in the healthcare bill is the pharmaceutical industry and one of the leading players is Pfizer Inc. Pfizer which is based in Connecticut, is the largest drug company in the world with a revenue in 2008 of over $48 billion and profits of more than $8 billion.

It uses part of that money like other drug companies for massive lobbying to protect its products and commercial interests. In the last quarter of 2009 it spent $5.4 million on US government lobbying. This in fact helped get it protection from the Obama administration that could have forced the drug company to deal with it like it deals with Canada and other countries in lowering costs. Pfizer executives met regularly with the president to make sure that they were protected in any health reform deal and they got their wish. (1)

It is clear that the US Democratic Congressional leaders were well funded by the very same pharmaceutical companies that they were and are supposed to be regulating and protecting the public from potential health hazards.

In fact, the two senators from Connecticut Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd are both know as insurance and drug company puppets. Pfizer Inc contributed $85,000 through individuals and PAC’s to Lieberman and Dodd’s wife Jackie Clegg was paid nearly $80,000 as a board member of Cardiome Pharma Corporation and both Senators are big defenders of the insurance industry which along with the Pharma industry controls Connecticut.

In early March 2010 in Harford, Connecticut   Federal Court, there will be another battle with Pfizer, but this is being waged by a lone-fired Pfizer molecular biologist Becky McClain who fought for health and safety on the job. She was exposed to a human infectious genetically engineered virus as a result of willful and wanton misconduct and lax health and safety protections by Pfizer. It has resulted in a disabling and painful illness to McClain.

Hired as a research scientist in 1995 in Nebraska, Becky was later transferred to Groton, Connecticut where she continued to do her work. Her department was Pfizer’s Human Health Embryonic Stem Cells Technologies, Genomic and Proteomic Sciences and Exploratory Medicinal Sciences Group. For the major drug companies, this area of research offers the richest opportunity for exploitation of new drugs and genetically engineered products.

McClain was aware that some of these genetic engineering processes had the potential of contaminating the health of her and other researchers and scientists, as well as being a public health issue.

While she was doing cutting edge stem cell research, she won high praise. In fact she won an award for her work with other departments of the company. McClain also became concerned that additional health and safety protections were needed at the job site. As a result of her concerns, she became the health and safety officer and committee person in her unit. Pfizer has of course no union and in fact has spent millions of dollars preventing any unionization. She would later learn that a national union busting law firm Jackson Lewis was retained in fact to fight her and other health and safety advocates. This law firm with offices throughout the United States and an annual income of $84 million offers itself to companies like Pfizer that are virulently anti-labor in order to fight the employees who want a union or who are fighting for their health and safety protection. (2)

In September 2002 while on the job she noticed noxious fumes emitted from a biological containment hood from the area she was working was making her ill.

“They (the heads of Environmental Health and Safety at Pfizer) met with me finally after four months, and this is what they told me: they basically said that under OSHA standards it’s legal.  Your unsafe work environment is legal.  They said, “This is how it’s run.  Pfizer’s safety budget is based on what is legal, and not necessarily on what is safe.”  She was told that several other employees from other departments came to complain about similar problems.  McClain spoke with the head of environmental health and safety, who said, “I’m sorry, but that’s how Pfizer’s run.” They also began to threaten her to keep quiet about the problems.

Her manager in fact threatened her that if she continued to complain she would be retaliated against if she made too big an issue of the labor safety.

By May 2003, she had been seriously exposed to some mystery agent where she and others had become ill with symptoms of vomiting, nausea and headaches and other complaints.  She asked for a transfer from the lab because of her safety concerns.

She also learned to her astonishment from another scientist, William Blake that she had been working next to a work space where dangerous lentivirus material and embryonic stems cells were used in an open lab bench without proper biological containment and without her knowledge. Without this information, she was incapable of protecting herself and subject to being contaminated.

No OSHA Protection For Biotech Workers

This shocked and frightened McClain who now realized that her ailments could lead to deadly results. At the same time, Becky was asking OSHA to investigate the health and safety conditions in the laboratory and getting nowhere.

OSHA told her that they were not capable of dealing with her problems despite her repeated efforts to get them to do their job. They told her  “Wait:  our investigator’s on vacation,” so I met with her a month later.   She sat down with me and she said, “Becky, most likely OSHA will not bring this retaliation claim forward, because only one out of 200 claims they do bring forward…remember [protection against retaliation means] protecting the public health [when] scientists and physicians [can] stand up and say “Hey we’ve got a public health problem” and they don’t get fired.  But only one in 200 that OSHA brings into court wins.  And she said, “Becky, this is a very weak law.  I can try and negotiate for you with Pfizer, but if that doesn’t work, nothing will happen.  So she did, and nothing happened, and of course it [my case] was dismissed.  Remember I was on the safety committee, the safety committee that was raising those issues …. (3)

The dirty little secret that McClain and thousands of other biotech workers know is that as a result of the pressure of Pfizer and other major biotech companies, OSHA has been sidelined, emasculated and completely marginalized in the biotech and nanotechnology industries.

This is not an isolated case. In Davis, California at the Agraquest Company owned by former Monsanto pesticide genetic researcher Pam Marrone, another laboratory worker David Bell also was infected with biological research agents due to lax health and safety protection. Bell like Becky discovered that Cal-Osha and other government agencies had been rendered useless in protecting his health and safety. (4)

This organized deregulation of the biotech and now the nanotech industry is a result of the industry spending large sums on Congress and the US presidents to make sure that there is not only no proper regulation but even the material that they work with is kept secret from the workers who might get infected. McClain at a talk at a San Francisco Workers Memorial Day event on April 28, 2009 talked about this failure to regulate. (5&6)

“Why is the scientific industry trying to avoid being regulated?  Well they want to really have the freedom to do any kind of research without responsibility or liability.  They say it’s going to halt science, and stop science if they pass regulations, but they want to go forward without any liability.  They also don’t want to put the money into their facilities.  Our problems at Pfizer could have been easily fixed by a bit of remodeling of the department to give us a safe break room and perhaps remove scientists out of office space where genetically engineered recombinant DNA work is going on.  Also, they don’t want public scrutiny; they don’t want the public to find out what’s going on with these dangerous technologies. 

Who pays the price?  It’s you, the public, and the biotech workers.  It’s not the big scientists you see on TV, because they’re not in there with the gloves on hand really making the viruses.  It’s me and other biotechnologists who have no rights to safety forums or stand up and say “Hey, there’s a problem” or rights to our exposure records.”

Only in December of 2009 did the EPA propose rules that require the disclosure of secret pesticide ingredients and of course the industry is fighting these measures.

The use by the industry of “trade secrets” and privacy agreements is an open method of preventing workers in the industry in fact from going public about their serious health and safety concerns.

Additionally the use of secret, sealed non-disclosure settlements by these corporations when they are forced to compensate injured workers or people in the community are another means of covering up their systemic crimes.

This is issue of privacy and protection of biotech and nanotech workers and the public is one of the tests the new OSHA director David Michaels who was recently appointed by President Obama will certainly face in taking over the agency. The challenge and battle to break the control of the drug/biotech and chemical industry in their effort to cover-up their track record and the cost of deregulation has yet to be seen.

One bad sign is that new legislation presented in Congress on OSHA does not address the biotech and nanotech industry and privacy agreements that allow these companies to keep secret the harm them have done to injured workers and the public. 

Criminal Discharge Of Injured Worker By Pfizer 

For Pfizer of course, the problem was not the failure to have a proper biological ventilation hood installed for the protection of her and her co-workers but to punish her for fighting for these health and safety protections.

McClain became sick from the contamination and was forced to go on medical leave from February 2004 to October 2004. She continued however to raise her concerns about the health and safety problems and despite the failure to correct the conditions she was being required to go back to work without the conditions being corrected. Although she had been promised that they would not retaliate against her this was exactly what happened on October 26, 2004 due to her supposed  “abandonment” of her job if she did not return to work. At the same time there was no assurance that the health and safety conditions had been remedied by the company.

In fact, Susan Martin of Pfizer Human Resources had personally promised that she would not be retaliated in any way for raising these serious health and safety concerns.

In September of 2004, McClain had contacted OSHA about the laboratory conditions and asked for an investigation of the biological contamination. OSHA Regional Administrator Marthe B. Kent told her there was nothing that they could do.

Pfizer was now on the hunt to terminate McClain before she exposed any more damaging and dangerous operations at the company. McClain was given poor appraisal reviews and then illegally discharged by the company. Although this is illegal, what millions of workers know is that the government allows companies to get rid of employees who complain about health and safety problems with a slap on the hand. Instead of this being treated as felony criminal violation, it ends up as a civil violation with a small fine and slap on the wrist. For the largest drug company in the world this obviously is a miniscule detail in the scale of   their operations. 

Getting The Information

Despite the right to know what you are working with in biotechnology, it has been a long and time-consuming battle to even force Pfizer to provide the information regarding McClain’s exposure.

“And it was ruled by our federal government at an OSHA level that trade secrets supersede a worker’s right to get those exposure records.  Now this left me with no rights for medical care.  This is a real serious thing.  I don’t know if you folks want your biotech workers who have been exposed to a genetically engineered infectious agent walking out into the public without a chance to get health care.  Think about that right now.  That’s very serious.   

I went to other agencies.  They were just as inept.  Workers’ compensation also claimed they had no authority to order the release of my exposure records.  So that was the end of my claim there.  The Connecticut Department of Public Health….remember I want you to know that here in California you have a $3 billion stem cell thing going on; in Connecticut we have a $100 million state funded program, a lot less than you folks…we didn’t get vote on it like you did….But the Connecticut Department of Public Health heads that embryonic stem cell agency….They said they don’t have any jurisdiction over genetically engineered viruses.  And embryonic stem cells and genetically engineered viruses, that’s what we’re using in there, which probably the public is not that aware of….NIH, [1] NIOSH, [2] CDC, [3] they were equally ineffective, and I couldn’t get help, so I was forced to file a federal lawsuit in an attempt to get my exposure records for my health care.   I’m in discovery phase now, so I can’t give you too many specifics about that right now, but I’d like to let you know that after a doctor’s request, after a professor of genetics request, and even after the judge has ordered Pfizer to release those records, they still have not release those records.  It’s interesting.” 

Not The Exception 

This again is not the exception. In the case of biotech worker David Bell at Agraquest in Davis, California, the company also worked to prevent seriously ill Bell from finding out what he was working with even though he needed it for his medical care. After years of struggle he eventually discovered from the Mayo clinic that he had 19 substances in his body likely from the company. These included histo yeast, a mold that is found in soil. It was in his blood serum and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affects the lungs and organs and other organs and can be fatal if not treated.

Yet the company and their insurer Liberty Mutual still denied liability for his workers compensation claim.

The drive of these biotech and other companies of course is to limit their liability and their costs. If they can prevent injured workers from finding out what has injured them, they are no longer liable for the cost and in many cases; the public is stuck with the bill. In the case of David Bell, over $333,000 was spent by Social Security to keep him alive and he is still fighting for his life. Bell never believed that this company would put in him and others in deadly danger in order to get their product on the market quickly without any holdups. (7)

 Marrone, in fact according to Bell had illegally imported fungus and bacteria from outside the country for experimentation and also had not divulged that there had been contaminations when the laboratory was shut down and numerous workers were sent home due to sickness. These of course would have forced her to report to the FDA, Cal-OSHA and other government agencies that required such reporting. It would have also stalled certification of he products her company was developing. She also later said in a video that her anxious investors had even coerced their Congress people to get the approval of her product pushed ahead despite the need to have a proper investigation of the potential dangers. (8&9)

Bell’s mother Sandi Trend even met Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey with other health and safety and injured worker advocates of the California Coalition For Workers Memorial Day. (10)

Woolsey is chair of the House Committee on the Workplace and also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. She promised to have hearings on new technology and workers safety in biotechnology and nanotechnology but nothing has been heard from her or committee since their meeting on 5/28/2008.

Woolsey was also unaware that in California, all the professional medical personnel have been eliminated from the Cal-OSHA program. Having no doctors in the Cal-OSHA program, which covers over 17 million workers raises serious flags about how California workers are being protected. This is also critical since the oversight of new technologies such as biotech and nanotech require medically trained professionals. Most industrial hygienists are not prepared to recognize and search out these types of potentially dangerous substances. 

Workers Comp Deregulation, New Technology and Liability

At the same time, as a result of the deregulation in California and throughout the country of the workers compensation system, the insurance industry and self insured employers are shifting billions of dollars of their costs to local, state and Federal agencies.

This also raises critical questions about the control and viability of private insurance industries in the workers compensation system. Proving injuries from completely new genetically engineered products as well as the emerging nanotech industry as we have seen in the case of these two injured biotech workers is very difficult and in many cases impossible under the present privatized healthcare system. (11)

Obama and the Democratic Congress in their new healthcare bill allow these same insurance companies to stay in charge of the workers compensation industry. This is a prime example of the need to eliminate the insurance industry and the control of companies like Pfizer and Agraquest who along with their workers comp insurers game the system to avoid their liability for the costs of workers injured on the job.

As pointed out earlier, they have the additional incentive in these industries to hide the health and safety problems since approval of many of their products would be held up if they reported serious injuries and toxic exposures. The FDA and other government agencies are required to be informed of such incidents but these companies are intent on preventing these incidents from seeing the light of day. The lack of criminal penalties for serious violations of health and safety in these industries as well as other industries are critical.  

International Criminal And WTO-FTA Agreements

Pfizer in particular has been involved in criminal activities worldwide including Nigeria where it performed unethical clinical trials on infected children with its new drug Trovan. None of Pfizer’s executives have yet faced a day in jail for these crimes. However, a Pfizer employee, Dr. Juan Walterspiel was terminated after blowing the whistle in trying to protect these Nigerian children.

Pfizer at the same time plays a key role in pushing for governments around the world to accept penetration by this company and the industry as a whole. Pfizer is a central player both in past Republican and Democratic administrations as well as the Obama administrations in bodies working out details of  “free trade agreements”. Their representatives set the agenda and then demand that other countries around the world buy into it. None of these so called free trade agreements require the proper oversight of new biotechnology products and the affect of these products on a global level. The regulation of these products in their production and before they are put on the market so they will not harm both biotech workers and the public is primarily left in the hands of the very developers of these products for all intents and purposes.

They have also pushed to copyright and patent for profit natural genetic codes and to force countries around the world to allow the introduction of their products whether the people of the country want them or not. At the same time, Pfizer and other drug companies with the support of the US government have written the WTO regulations allowing them to gouge poor countries of the world including those needing drugs fighting Aids and other serious diseases. (12)

In 2003, Pfizer executives negotiated directly with the director-general of the WTO and officials from member states to block a proposal that would allow them to import cheaper copies of patented drugs during public health emergencies such as HIV, Aids and the swine flu. (13)

Environmentalists and health and safety advocates worldwide are in a battle against a world economic framework that puts the interests of Pfizer and the drug and chemical industry in the drivers seat when determining all trade and economic development and the result is the death and sickness of many around the world.

In the US at the same time, Pfizer has also scammed the government out of billions of dollars by pressurizing their staff to sell their drugs whether or not they were appropriate to treat the disease. The most notable case was the illegal use of Bextra and the company was fined $2.3 billion for it’s illegal activities. Fired Pfizer salesman John Kopchinski who went public against Pfizer for these activities made it clear what Pfizer expected. “At Pfizer I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives. Kopchinski and five other whistleblowers will receive $102 million from the US government under the false claims act.

The laws however do not protect Becky McClain and other biotech worker whistleblowers for their effort to protect themselves and the public.

At the same time, the district attorneys who are supposed to prosecute workers comp fraud in California and DA’s around the country fail to go after these companies and the insurance industry for massive systemic fraud. This is also ignored up by the US Attorney General and the Federal Attorneys around the country since a large part of this cost shifting ends up being paid by SSI and the US taxpayers.

Americans continue to see that the insurance and drug industry has a death grip on the US Congress and the President and this death grip is killing hundreds of thousands of people, preventing the protection of biotech workers and not only the people of the United States but the people of the world. 

From Connecticut   To Seoul 

Although McClain never spoke of unionization during her employment, she now believes that a key component in protecting her and other biotech workers in this industry is the unionization of the industry. The constructive discharge of her with help from law firms like Jackson Lewis is part and parcel of the industries methods of preventing workers for speaking up for health and safety as well as getting unionized.

Becky is breaking that tide and she recently reached out in solidarity to the Seoul Pfizer workers who were also fighting for unionization.

In October of 2009, Becky wrote a public letter in support of Korean Pfizer trade unionist Shim Dong-hee after he was fired for seeking to build a union. “I feel for Shim Dong-hee. I know what he has experienced. I acknowledge him for trying to help other co-workers”. Shim was also fired for trying to organize a union at Pfizer Animal Health with his colleagues.

“This issue is about the powerful against the weak. Pfizer is just a big bully,” McClain said. She said the culture at Pfizer is such that workers raise public health, safety, or any other issues at the risk of being kicked out” Not unsurprisingly this story did not make it in the US press. (14)

Becky’s fight however is just beginning and this upcoming March 2010 trial will in fact put not only Pfizer on trial but an industry that is out of control and a threat to human kind.