Labor defends worker felled by insect spray

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Cliff Watts was on duty in Tower 1 — an armed guard tower at the Snake River Correctional Institution — when the wasps started getting agitated. Wasps had been a chronic problem in the tower, on the outside perimeter of the campus of Oregon’s largest prison, located four miles north of the Eastern Oregon town of Ontario.

On this day, Sept. 26, 2003, the sun heated up the tower and the wasps were quite active. Watts was stung. So he called the prison safety officer to do something about it.

Normally, the guard towers would be sprayed with pesticide at night when the towers were unoccupied and the wasps were in their nests, but that day the safety officer was out, and her stand-in decided to deal with the problem right away. He brought two 14-ounce cans of CB Stinger Wasp and Hornet Jet Spray, and emptied them in the enclosed 200-square-foot room where Watts continued to work.

CB Stinger Wasp and Hornet Spray contains the pesticide phenothrin — fatal to wasps, and not too good for humans. Manufacturer’s instructions advise users to avoid breathing the chemical and warn of skin disorders, eye irritation, nasal and respiratory irritation and nervous system disorders such as fatigue, dizziness and headaches.

For two hours, Watts stayed in the guard tower, with the pesticide so thickly applied that it dripped off the ceiling. The stuff was everywhere, Watts, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3940, recalls. It was on the floor, on the log book, covering the electrical equipment, on the windows. Watts labored to clean off the surfaces before his replacement arrived.

Soon his skin began to itch and his head to ache. He called and got permission to leave work early.

Watts, 29 years old, says he had never had any allergies — even to poison oak. But a day after the exposure, he says he began to break out in hives in reaction to cold, a condition later diagnosed by a doctor as “cold urticaria.”

“I was the kind of guy that would go out there when it was 20 below,” Watts said. “Now, when I got cold, my hands would start to itch.”

He continued to work despite this, and despite the fact that the tower still reeked of the chemical for several days.

And over the next few weeks, Watts suffered from dizzy spells.

On Oct. 14, the first seizure came. He was out deer hunting with a friend. Hives had broken out, and he collapsed, lost consciousness and was taken to the emergency room.

Since then, seizures have occurred as often as several times a week – rapid, jerky eye movements, tensing up of the muscles, fainting and memory loss — not the kind of thing you want to happen to you when you’re a corrections officer keeping watch over violent felons. At Snake River, some 560 officers are responsible for 2,900 inmates.

Watts saw a toxicologist, a neurologist and an environmental medicine specialist. His doctors recommended modified duty.

“The doctors tell me I’m an interesting case study,” Watts said. Phenothrin is considered only mildly toxic — why was he having such a severe reaction? Watts contacted the manufacturer and found the biologist who ran the product’s safety tests. He said the biologist told him the product could cause nervous system disorders in mammals, and that the chemical affects different people differently.

The officer who came into Tower 1 to relieve Watts also had symptoms — he suffered a lingering cough for a few months, and has begun feeling numbness in his hands. But these symptoms don’t prevent him from working.

Watts’ condition is preventing a return to work, at least until the seizures cease. In the guard tower, armed with a Ruger Mini-14 rifle and a .38-caliber sidearm, he was responsible for preventing escape and serious injury among prisoners congregating in the yard below. Now, he says, doctors think it’s inadvisable he return to that kind of duty.

But so far, he’s had no luck obtaining workers’ compensation. SAIF Corp., a quasi state-owned corporation and Oregon’s largest seller of workers’ compensation insurance, sent him to a psychologist, who evaluated him and said his problems were psychological. His claim was denied.

Watts’ union, AFSCME Local 3940, stepped in. A grievance was filed seeking to make him whole.

The grievance was denied on the basis that the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OR-OSHA) didn’t have the pesticide listed as a dangerous chemical. But the union believes in his case, and is taking it to arbitration.

The union, aided by Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt, also called on OR-OSHA to investigate.

Ontario, in Malheur County skirting the border of Idaho, is in the Mountain Time Zone. It is 376 miles from AFSCME’s Portland headquarters; but not so remote that workers, sticking together in their union, can’t have influence.

OR-OSHA heeded Witt’s request, and sent an investigator out to the Snake River Correctional Facility. On April 8, prison management issued a memo about bee/wasp hazards to all staff.

“Effective immediately any staff member who identifies wasps or bees entering their post shall report this hazard immediately to their respective shift lieutenant,” the memo reads. “If the hazard cannot be removed by killing the insect, or if there are numerous bees, the employee will be removed from the area and the post shut down. The designated commercial vendor will be contacted and arrangements made to have the bees sprayed. … [prison] employees are not authorized to use any kind of insecticide or pesticide to kill insects.”

The memo makes clear that prison administrators intend to have no new cases like Watts’. But what’s to become of Watts? His workers’ comp claim was denied, and an attorney told him he has no case. Arbitration of the union’s grievance may not begin until May.

It may be that OR-OSHA — and the SAIF doctor who examined Watts — lack familiarity with phenothrin. But far from Malheur County, there’s another group of workers that has become quite familiar with the hazards of phenothrin — flight attendants who fly into Australia, New Zealand and more than a dozen other nations.

To prevent pests from entering, those nations require that airplane cabins and cockpits be sprayed in-flight and soaked between flights — with phenothrin. The hives, rashes, and respiratory, nervous system and immune system disorders that result have prompted more than 400 complaints to the flight attendants’ union, a class action lawsuit against one airline, an ardent appeal to an international aviation agency meeting in Cairo, and an investigation by the California Department of Health.


(Editor’s Note: Part Two, appearing in the May 7 issue of the Northwest Labor Press: Health researchers find that human health problems were underestimated for a chemical that workers were told was safe.)

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