Employees sue Sutter Health over use of 'corrosive' cleanser

Five employees have filed a lawsuit against Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, alleging the health system had them use a "corrosive" cleanser to help mitigate high rates of Costridioides difficile in its hospitals, The Sacramento Bee reported Jan. 19. 

The plaintiffs allege the health system had environmental services workers start using Ecolab's OxyCide instead of the previously used two-step cleaning process because it was cheaper and ultimately saved Sutter millions of dollars. 

The lawsuit has not yet been scheduled for trial and is seeking class-action status to represent 1,800 workers. It claims multiple physicians warned Sutter not to force workers to use OxyCide. Among the suit's allegations is a situation in which a plaintiff's exposure to the cleanser led to reactive airways disease, a condition that occurs when a person's bronchial tubes overreact to an irritant and complicate breathing. The plaintiff was evaluated by Sophie Cole, MD, an internist who completed training at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. Following similar incidents from other plaintiffs, 140 workers signed a petition against use of the product. 

Regarding OxyCide's use, Dr. Cole cited data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

"Safety should be a major concern for anyone using it because it is corrosive to the eyes, the skin and the respiratory tract. Symptoms from inappropriate exposures can include cough, labored breathing, shortness of breath and burns to the eyes," Dr. Cole told the Sacramento Bee. 

When confronted with the effects of using OxyCide, Sutter allegedly "wrote off the harm as user error and put the workers through re-training, doubling down on knowingly false claims to all [environmental services] workers that the product was essentially harmless," according to the lawsuit, cited by the news outlet. 

In a statement sent to Becker's, a spokesperson for Sutter Health said employee and patient safety is the top priority and that the system is proud of its efforts to reduce hospital-acquired infections, including those caused by C. diff. 

"Our hospitals exceed both state and national measures of quality in this and many other measures," the statement said. "We disagree with the claims in the lawsuit or that it accurately characterizes our affiliates' efforts to watch out for the health and safety of our employees and patients. We feel confident in our position in this case and will continue our emphasis on patient and employee safety." 

To read the full report, click here.

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