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State agency finds nearly 2 dozen problems at Cook County morgue
Report comes on heels of shake-up in medical examiner's office

Friday, June 29, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by John Byrne

An Illinois Department of Labor investigation has found nearly two dozen problems at the Cook County morgue — from trays damaged by falling bodies to shortcomings in vaccinating employees against serious diseases they could encounter on the job.

County officials received the state agency's report Thursday, and the Tribune obtained a copy. It outlines violations that inspectors said undermined the safety of morgue workers.

The report comes a little more than a week after County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a shake-up at the medical examiner's office that she said was executed in part to "ensure efficiency and safety." Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones will retire at the end of July, and Kimberly Jackson was replaced as the top administrator in the office.

The Labor Department launched its investigation in January amid media reports and photos that purported to show a lack of care in the handling of bodies and overcrowding in the storage cooler.

The agency cites 21 shortcomings at the morgue, including problems with the cooler where bodies are kept. The report says employees could be struck by bodies or other hazards while operating lifts in the cooler "due to lack of maintenance and training."

The racks on which bodies are stored in the cooler are damaged, according to the report.

"Both management and employee interviews indicated that trays, bodies or both have fallen from as high as the top level of the rack system, approximately 10 feet high," the report states.

Morgue administrators also did not make required hepatitis B vaccinations available to workers potentially exposed to the disease, the report states.

Asked whether the findings indicate flaws in the leadership at the West Side facility, Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves said it appears that was part of the problem.

"I think that with a report like this, there is evidence of management issues," Neves said. "But they can't be summed up starting with one person. This is about a culture over time, and management is a component of that."

County officials aware of the state investigation already have begun correcting some of the issues detailed in the report, according to Gina Deciani, deputy chief administrative officer with the county's Bureau of Administration.

Some of the fixes, such as updating safety plans and properly labeling containers of hazardous materials, are fairly straightforward. Equipment upgrades like fixing the racks in the cooler will take longer because the county will need to free up money to make repairs, Deciani said. In the meantime, county engineers will try to figure out how to shore up the racks and other equipment so workers are at less risk of getting hurt, she said.

Meanwhile, Preckwinkle has launched a nationwide search to find a new chief pathologist. And she brought in Daryl Jackson, a longtime state Public Health Department supervisor, to serve as the new administrator.

Neves said having administrators with backgrounds in public health and safety will be key to making sure the improvements will be long term. And she said morgue officials will work closely with Stroger Hospital to maintain tighter controls going forward.

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