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OSHA probe of death of L+M nurse's aide could take six months

New London — Investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Hartford office met with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital representatives following the May 19 death of Elva Graveline, the nurse’s aide who died of complications associated with COVID-19.

L+M declined Thursday to comment on whether OSHA was investigating Graveline’s death, citing a law that protects patient privacy.

“OSHA has met with representatives from the hospital and frontline staff, and reviewed documentation submitted by the hospital,” an L+M spokeswoman said.

An OSHA database shows an investigation, or "inspection," involving a “fatality or catastrophe” was opened at L+M on May 26.

L+M or a representative of L+M likely reported the workplace death, according to Christine George, an OSHA assistant area director in the Hartford office. Under federal law, employers are required to notify OSHA when an employee is killed on the job, or suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

No information about the original report or the substance of the inspection will be released until the probe is concluded, which could take up to six months, George said.

Graveline, a 52-year-old certified nurse’s assistant, had been caring for as many as 10 COVID-19 patients per shift in L+M’s “COVID-19 unit,” Connie Fields, president of AFT Connecticut, Local 5123, told The Day at the time of Graveline’s death. Graveline tested positive for the coronavirus disease in April and died in the critical care unit at L+M, heightening concerns about the dangers hospital staff were facing in treating COVID-19 patients.

L+M's COVID-19 inpatient count peaked at 31 on May 6, and fell to zero on June 24. It has remained there most days since, including Thursday.  

Some 200 people rallied May 30 in New London in honor of Graveline and to raise awareness of the need for greater protections for health care workers. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Gov. Ned Lamont and other state and local officials joined members of health care unions and Graveline’s family at the event.

Matt O’Connor, a spokesman for AFT Connecticut, which represents health care workers at L+M and elsewhere across the state, said the union had not filed a complaint with OSHA in connection with Graveline’s death. He said the union has filed complaints in other cases in which health care workers have died or been exposed to unsafe working conditions.

O’Connor said he’s aware of only one other COVID-19-related death of a health care worker at an acute-care hospital in Connecticut. That occurred during an early stage of the pandemic, he said, at a Hartford HealthCare facility. Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer, announced that death at an April 16 news conference. He did not identify the employee who died or the hospital where the employee worked.

O’Connor said OSHA has launched an “incredibly low” number of investigations into complaints about COVID-19 workplace conditions.

“We have dozens if not scores of complaints,” he said. “You’d expect them to investigate when someone dies, but what about safety concerns? We’ve sounded the alarm bell over and over again.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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