State agency looks into Stream TB exposure
OR-OSHA's probe of illness found at Beaverton call center isn't common
A state agency will investigate the recent tuberculosis exposure at Beaverton's Stream call center.
Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Division (known as OR-OSHA) contacted Stream officials last week about the TB exposure and plans an investigation of the company's facility on Southwest Murray Boulevard.
It will be only the third time in eight years that the occupational health agency has investigated a workplace TB exposure case in Oregon. Most TB cases are confined to families or individuals in contact with someone in a dwelling who has developed the disease.
'This is a very unusual situation,' said Kevin Weeks, public information officer for the agency that enforces workplace safety regulations. 'We're very lucky to not have this kind of exposure very often.'
The other two TB exposure cases investigated by the agency in 1999 and 2003 involved healthcare facilities that treated ill people, Weeks said.
Washington County's Department of Health and Human Services said last week that a former Stream employee had become sick with tuberculosis. More than a dozen Stream employees tested positive for the illness last week, the agency said.
By Tuesday, county health officials had tested more than 600 of Stream's 1,000 Beaverton employees. The agency probably won't have information on how many people tested positive for the illness until the end of this week, said Kent Burtner, the health agency's public information officer.
'Right now there are no more active cases,' Burtner said.
County officials also are trying to contact former Stream employees who might have been exposed during the past couple of months.
Weeks said OR-OSHA probably would inspect the Stream call center site and talk with company officials to make certain 'the employer acted appropriately.'
'We're looking at what kind of safety and health protocols the management had in place at the time to make sure that they did what they could to minimize the spread of the illness,' Weeks said.
Burtner said county health inspectors checked the call center's ventilation system and found nothing unusual that could have contributed to the spread of the illness.
Katherin Dockerill, Stream's senior vice president for marketing and business strategy, said local call center managers met last week with OR-OHSA staff and provided information and material about the center.
More meetings have been scheduled, she said.
'They've been great to work with,' Dockerill said.
Many Stream employees are frightened by the TB exposure. Some are contacting lawyers and considering legal action against the company if they test positive for the illness.
'There are some people who are kind of weirded out about it,' said one employee, who has worked at Stream since last summer and asked that he not be identified. 'There also are a lot of people who are just pissed off.
'There are probably 20 or 30 people who, if they test positive, are talking about filing a class-action lawsuit.'
The employee was among dozens who were tested early this week for the illness. He said that many of the lines for testing were '50 people long.' He expected to hear the results of his test today or Friday.
Some Stream employees faulted a strict company absentee policy that limited sick days and, they said, forced people to come to work when they were ill.
'I'm not surprised by this, not in the least,' said the employee. 'The way the attendance policy is laid out you almost have to come to work sick. I was in a big group of people who caught that flu that went through here last year.'
Dockerill said Stream provided thorough information about tuberculosis to all its employees and kept them informed with memos from the county health department and call center management.
Even though employees have been exposed to the illness, that doesn't mean they will develop tuberculosis, Burtner said. The county sees between eight and 20 TB cases each year. This exposure is different because it happened in a workplace, not in a private home or among family members.
Tuberculosis usually strikes the lungs and causes fatigue, weight loss, fever and night sweats. Symptoms of TB include coughing, chest pain and coughing up blood.
The disease is spread through the air, but catching it requires prolonged contact with an infected person. People can't catch TB from just being near a person with the disease. Being exposed also doesn't guarantee that a person will develop the illness.
Treating tuberculosis requires patients to take several drugs for six to 12 months.
Companies face fines
Stream of Richardson, Texas, operates its call center at 3601 S.W. Murray Blvd. The company provides telephone support services to several major businesses.
The person infected with TB has not worked at the call center since early March. That person, who wasn't identified, is being treated for the disease and is expected to recover.
OR-OSHA's other workplace TB exposure cases involved Eugene's Oregon Lung Specialists in 2003 and Portland's Comprehensive Options for Drug Abusers Inc. in 1999.
In the Eugene case, clinic employees complained that they were exposed to TB during treatment of several homeless people. The clinic employees said they weren't told the homeless people had TB or that it was a danger.
OR-OSHA hit the clinic with a citation for three workplace violations that were serious (considered a hazard to workers) and two that were other-than-serious (not a hazard to employees). The company also was slapped with a $995 penalty.
In the Portland drug rehab case, workers were exposed to TB from some of the clients. An investigation failed to substantiate the workers' claims, but OR-OSHA investigators discovered other violations, one serious and three other-than-serious.
The drug rehabilitation center was issued a $500 penalty in the case.
CURABLE DISEASE ISN'T THAT RARE
Oregon is no stranger to tuberculosis. There have been dozens of cases of the disease in the state during the past two years.
Last year, there were 81 reported cases in the state, eight in Washington County. Multnomah County had 32 cases in 2006, the most that year.
In 2005, 103 TB cases were reported in Oregon; 17 in Washington County, 40 in Multnomah County and four in Clackamas County.
OR-OSHA has only investigated two tuberculosis exposure cases in workplaces since 1999. Both of those involved health care facilities that treated people who could have been infected.
Information on TB, how it spreads and its treatment can be found on the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services' Web site, www.oregon.gov/DHS/ph/tb/index.shtml.