Cal/OSHA fines Sutter Health for COVID-19 violations at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center

Nurses represented by the California Nurses Association strike on June 13, 2012, outside the Alta Bates Medical Center campus in Berkeley. Nurses from 11 Bay Area hospitals, including Berkeley's Alta Bates, went out on a one-day strike to protest. (P

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) handed a $155,250 fine to Sutter Health's Alta Bates Summit Medical Center for several coronavirus-related workplace safety issues, including the death last summer of a registered nurse, union officials representing the hospital's workers said Monday.

Cal/OSHA launched an investigation into Alta Bates' workplace safety protocols after nurse Janine Paiste-Ponder died from COVID-19 last July. The investigation found multiple violations, including the failure to supply N95-grade respirators to Paiste-Ponder's unit.

"Janine and many other nurses were calling on the hospital to address their many infection control concerns but their pleas for safety went unanswered when Janine ended up being exposed," said Mike Hill, a registered nurse and hospital's chief representative with the California Nurses Association. 

"It is heartbreaking Janine had to die before these problems were taken seriously enough for a state investigation," Hill said. 

Cal/OSHA issued at least eight citations following its investigation, according to the CNA.

Violations included failure to properly isolate COVID-19-positive patients, requiring nurses to reuse masks, failure to notify health care workers of COVID-19 exposure in a timely manner, failure to test asymptomatic workers and failure to execute a formal disease exposure control plan.

A spokesperson for Sutter Health, which is based in Sacramento and operates two dozen hospitals and numerous specialized care facilities in Northern California, said the organization has already appealed the citations.

"None of the findings are specific to the passing of our beloved colleague," Sutter Health said in a statement. "We continue to mourn her loss and are disappointed that her memory is being used for political gain."

"We are glad that Cal/OSHA corroborated these warnings and complaints that we've been raising since the first days of the pandemic, but what's most important is to organize and ensure Sutter learns something from all this," Hill said. "We need to protect health care workers and patients from suffering harm in the first place, not after people have already died."