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Sunday, July 25, 2004

Nanny U.

It's July, the middle of the sleepy academic summer, and here at Harvard everyone at the Office of Common Sense is away on vacation.   Tourists stroll through the Yard, and students sleep in the grass.  Happy biologists take off their shoes and eat their lunches outside in the sunshine.  Yet the tranquility of the university belies the menace and activity of its bureaucrats.   I sense that they have waited until just this moment, the time of absolute maximum complacency, to unleash their new policy. 

Last week, I attended a mandatory meeting wherein it was explained that Harvard has expanded its Occupational Health Program to cover anyone who works with animals.  All animal users are now required to fill out a Medical History Questionnaire, and failure to do so can result in loss of access to the animal facilities or loss of employment.  Our personal medical information will be transferred to the Disability Claims Unit and screened by a nurse, who will make recommendations about whether we need any "accommodations", compulsory medical tests, or training to perform our jobs.

On basic principle, I find this to be an egregious violation of my privacy.  In practice, however, these things always boil down to the details.  For example, if the questionnaire simply asked me to list any animals to which I am violently and lethally allergic, I admit I would probably go along with it.  I am weak.  Yes, I know its wrong to coerce people to divulge medical information, but if the questions were reasonable enough, I might let it go.

Luckily, the questionairre is no where near reasonable enough to lull a lazy postdoc into grievous moral error.  Although there are different forms for "low risk" and "high risk" animal users, even the short version asks for personal details that many people would be uncomfortable sharing with their employer.  Plus, many of the questions have nothing to do with animal-related risk.  For example, I have a hard time understanding how anyone's smoking habits increase their risk of contracting an illness from mice.  The question I find most offensive, however,  is #6a (see below), which is easily translated into "Do you have AIDS?  If you don't want to say so here, you will be having a conversation with a nurse." 

The likelihood that I would take a stand on this issue was also greatly enhanced by the two people who ran the meeting.  An administrator from the Financial Office informed us that the real incentive for this policy was to comply with standards from AAALAC and the NIH (standards that have nothing to do with the law, mind you), that normally Harvard would not ask us to divulge such information, but that it was "for our own good anyway."  Oddly those words did not have the persuasive effect he thought they would.

Then, a bossy nurse took the podium to answer questions.  She regaled us with a delightful anecdote about how she wondered what "zoo-noses" were, but then someone told her they were "zoh-a-NOS-ees", which is a word that us scientists use to describe diseases that can be passed from animals to people.  (Blank faces, no response.)  Someone said they didn't know whether they had been vaccinated for "vaccinia", and what was it anyway?  She responded that she certainly didn't know, but "vaccinia" is another word that us scientists use.  We should call our primary care provider to get our vaccination records.  And, quote: "Don't just write down that you don't know.  You HAVE to tell us the truth."

At this point, a couple of us laughed out loud and caused a disruption.  Others didn't understand whether they were in the "low risk" or "high risk" category and couldn't get a straight answer.  Heads of labs were told to consult the head of their lab.  After lots of squabbling, I finally worked up the courage to ask my question.  "So, what happens if we find this policy offensive and choose not to fill out the form?"  The bossy nurse deferred to the administrator, who pursed his lips and paused.  ".....Well, it probably wouldn't come to this...but, it does state that you could be prevented from working with animals.  I mean, we certainly HOPE it wouldn't come to that.  But it could."

Let's hope it doesn't, because I will eat maggots before I fill out that form.  Unfortunately, not being able to work with mice would effectively end my career. 

This can't possibly be legal, can it?

Section 3: Medical History:

Health Plan:
Name of your Primary Care Physician:
Date of Last Visit:
Location of Primary Care Physician:
Other Specialists involved in your care (list names and locations):

The following questions address possible health concerns related to your work with laboratory animals in Faculty of Arts and Sciences animal facilities:

1.  Do you currently smoke tobacco?  No or Yes.


2.  Have you smoked tobacco in the past 12 months?  No or Yes.


3.  Have you experienced any of the following symptoms:  eye burning?  nasal congestion?  skin itching?  hives?  cronic cough?  wheezing?  shortness of breath?  anaphylaxis? 

Do you take medication to control any of the above symptoms?  No or Yes.  If yes, please list. 

When did your symptoms begin?  Childhood or Adult.


4.  Have you experienced any of these symptoms with exposure to any of the following items? 

 a.  Animals?  No or Yes.  If yes, please specify the species that cause symptoms and describe your symptoms. 

b.  Latex products? No or Yes.  If yes, please tell us which symptoms you experience.

c.  Other workplace items?  No or Yes.  If yes, please explain.

d.  Have you had skin allergy testing?

     i.  Skin test?  No or Yes.  If yes, results:

    ii.  Other test?  No or Yes.  If yes, type of test and results.

e.  If you take any medication for the above problems, please list.


5.  Muscle and Joint conditions:

a.  If you have had weakness, pain, stiffness, or restrictions in your muscles or joints, please check off the affected body parts:  shoulders?  elbows?  wrists/hands?  hips?  knees?  ankles?  neck?  lower back?

b.  If you have checked any of the above items, please describe the problem and any treatment you received.

c.  If you take any medications for the above problems, please list.


6.  Other significant medical problems:

a.  Have you ever been told you have an illness that will make you more susceptible to other illnesses?  No or Yes.  (You may choose to leave this section blank if you prefer and discuss these matters with the occupational health specialist).

b.  Do you have any other medical concerns that might interfere with your ability to do your job that you would like to discuss with an occupational health physician?  No or Yes.

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