Fire at Durham Regional yields fine for Duke Health

May. 03, 2013 @ 06:53 PM

State occupational-safety inspectors have fined the Duke University Health System $5,600 in connection with a fire last November at Durham Regional Hospital.

They also levied a $3,500 penalty on the separate company, Select Specialty Hospitals, that leases space on Durham Regional’s sixth floor.

N.C. Department of Labor officials said inspectors had found each organization responsible for a “serious” violation of workplace safety standards.

The Nov. 6 fire broke out in the space used by Select Specialty as medical personnel were attempting to revive a post-surgical patient who’d gone into cardiac arrest.

The two citations, issued on April 30, said a spark from the defibrillator they were using touched off a fire because they were also administering oxygen to the patient.

Inspectors faulted both Duke Health and Select Specialty for failing “to properly train” their personnel “on the fire hazards of an oxygen-enriched environment during the administration of defibrillation.”

Oxygen is not itself flammable, but its presence is necessary for combustion to occur. When present in larger-than-normal quantities, it helps materials burn faster than normal, at times so quickly the results are for all intents and purposes explosive.

The patient who was being treated, Casper Tawan Simon Jr., died. State medical examiners later attributed his death to the cardiac arrest.

Three Durham Regional staff members were injured.

Though Duke Health officials issued a statement the day of the incident that called the fire “small,” its smoke and the water damage caused when the building’s sprinkler system discharged forced workers to move more than 40 patients.

Duke Health and Select Specialty have appeal rights. They can ask Department of Labor inspectors for an “informal conference” that could lead to a reduction of the fines, or formally contest the inspectors’ conclusion.

Duke Health – which manages the publicly owned Durham Regional under a lease from Durham County – as of Friday was not ruling out an appeal.

“We are exploring our options,” Durham Regional spokesman Scott Byerly said.

A spokesman for the Department of Labor, Neal O’Briant, said that inspectors, by law, could have fined each company up to $7,000. But it has to take in account factors such as the size of the business, the good faith and cooperation of the employer and its history of previous violations.

The fines themselves “are in no way designed to make up for the loss of life,” as they’re issued both to penalize the employer and “get the attention of other employers with similar work environments,” he said.

By law, a “serious” workplace-safety violation is one where “a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm” could result.

Any money Duke Health and Select Specialty end up paying the Department of Labor will go to the public schools.