Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lab suspends blood-alcohol testing

Former employee critized training, storage

DENVER - The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is suspending blood-alcohol and blood-drug testing performed at its toxicology laboratory effective July 3.

The suspension comes three weeks after a report was publicly released that said a former employee had made allegations that workers were not properly trained and samples were not properly stored.

The state toxicology lab will complete the work on samples currently in the testing process but unprocessed specimens and new specimens will be rerouted to another lab for processing, state officials said.

"We will have an independent laboratory retest approximately 800 blood-alcohol samples to verify the state toxicology lab's blood-alcohol test results," said the department's former executive director, Dr. Chris Urbina. "We take seriously the concerns from law enforcement, public defenders and the public -- and this is the best way for us to verify the accuracy of testing at the toxicology lab."


-- Changes at the state lab --

Since the report became public, DCPHE said changes have been implemented.

Officials said all refrigerators with blood-alcohol samples are now locked and the staff is receiving more training.

A supervisor criticized in the report has retired, Urbina said.

Urbina is also leaving. Urbina announced his resignation less than one week after the report became public.

Urbina said he is leaving to explore other opportunities.


-- Report criticized training of lab techs --

While the investigative report on CDPHE was publicly released June 7, it was actually given to officials months earlier.

The report, dated March 18, said a former laboratory technician, identified only as Employee 18, made several allegations including that blood alcohol training for toxicology lab employees was inadequate and that blood and urine samples were not securely stored in the lab.

Employee 18 said their training lasted three weeks and was conducted by other employees who had not been educated on how to train new analysts. The employee said friends with similar jobs received one year of training or more.

Employee 18 said they were then asked to train other employees.

"I was very uncomfortable performing that role because no one had taught me how to do it," Employee 18 said in the report. "In addition, I was required to handle a full workload while training the new employees, which made it difficult for me to perform my job properly. I ran as many samples as I could, but it was impossible for me to keep up with the workload."

Employee 18 said the lab technicians also made mistakes because they had not been trained on all the procedures.

"I made a mistake when I ran the test by possibly pulling the wrong sample and sending a report with the wrong result," Employee 18 said.

Some employees were listed in the report saying they felt their training was adequate, while others admitted they were not trained on how to properly use various pieces of equipment.

"I was also not taught that the hydrogen generator had to be filled with water. I learned that when the alarm sounded on the generator," Employee 1 said in the report.

The report writer found that while some supervisors provided adequate training, once they left, the process changed.

"Whereas Supervisor 4 and Supervisor 5 apparently provided a significant amount of personal training to employees learning how to conduct blood alcohol tests, employees who have conducted training since their departure have relied on the checklist developed by Supervisor 5 and appear to have lacked an understanding of how to conduct training beyond the use of the checklist and some observation of trainees," the report writer said.

-- Allegations of storage problems --

Employee 18 also alleged that refrigerators used to store blood and urine samples were not locked, making them accessible by unauthorized personnel.

Supervisor 3 told investigators s/he was not concerned about the allegation.

"I have not felt a need to lock the refrigerators themselves because, in the [NUMBER] years I have worked here, we have never had a sample tampered with and we have never lost a sample," said Supervisor 3.

State officials said locks were placed on the refrigerators in March.

"There are four levels of locks between the front door and the samples," according to a statement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "The samples have tamper seals on them."


-- Report: Employee 18 accusations' accurate  --

The investigator wrote in the report that s/he believed many of the allegations by Employee 18 were accurate.

"As indicated above, this investigator finds that the allegations made by Employee 18 and other employees of the toxicology lab are accurate based on the information available," the investigator wrote. "This investigator notes that Supervisor 3 denied conduct that was consistently corroborated by some employees.  Her/his denials only served to damage her/his credibility."


-- Second investigation --

CDPHE said while the samples are done by outside labs, the Association of Public Health Laboratories will audit the state toxicology laboratory's procedures.

"Lab staff members will continue their training on updated standard operating procedures and industry best practices," officials said.

The toxicology lab’s testing equipment will be also be inspected and recalibrated, the CDPHE said.


-- Some testing will continue --

Only the blood-alcohol and blood drug testing is being suspended. All other services provided by the state lab will continue. Those services include screening for newborn illnesses, breath alcohol testing for law enforcement, disease testing, water and air testing.

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