Becky McClain: Journey from Labroom to Courtroom – The Legal, Emotional & Financial Struggles of Dealing with Occupational Illness and Holding Pfizer Accountable

Becky McClain worked as a career molecular biologist for 23 years. McClain explains that she was working at Pfizer when she was exposed to a bio-agent that led to her developing a serious illness. Recently a federal appeals court found that she was heavily retaliated against for raising health and safety concerns at the workplace. Her trailblazing whistleblower lawsuit against Pfizer is a victory for workers’ rights. Below is an interview with Becky McClain. 

How did you become ill while working at Pfizer and what happened when you spoke out on health and safety issues?

In 2002 I became concerned about unsafe work practices related to biocontainment issues. We were finding carcinogenic chemicals we worked with and genetically engineered viruses in the spaces where we ate and drank. I tried to raise these issues with management and was repeatedly ignored and told I was hypersensitive. I got on the safety committee to fix these safety problems within our department, but management removed me when they saw what I was doing.

Later that year about 6 of my co-workers and I started falling ill from a biocontainment cabinet that was emitting a mysterious noxious odor. This lasted an entire year causing workers to become acutely ill. Pfizer refused to perform appropriate testing and did little to fix the problem, except to finally release the noxious source into the environment, creating a public safety threat.

Then one morning in 2003 I walked into my lab and was shocked to find an experiment that had been left overnight all over my bench with no biocontainment. Within the next week I began experiencing numbness in half my face and other bizarre symptoms. A month later I found out that the experiment to which I had been exposed involved an infectious genetically engineered lentivirus which was not even supposed to be allowed in a lab of our safety level.

I understand that you continued to speak out about health and safety issues even after you fell ill. Did Pfizer’s response to you ever change?

No, Pfizer became more aggressive and began to retaliate against me as I kept speaking out about public and worker health and safety issues. My supervisor actually forced me up against a wall and threatened me that he would falsify my performance review. The head of environmental health and safety told me that Pfizer’s budget was based on what was legal, and not necessarily what is safe, so they weren’t obligated to do anything. Even after I had to take medical leave, I continued to pursue my health and safety concerns; I tried to get the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to help me and to do an inspection so I could return to work, but neither Pfizer nor OSHA would do anything about it. When I wrote to Pfizer asking for my exposure records, which I needed to get appropriate care for my condition, they fired me.

Could you speak more on your experience with developing a rare occupational illness?

As I mentioned the illness began immediately after the exposure with unusual symptoms like numbness in half of my face and tongue, followed by a subsequent onset of severe jaw pain. Then came headaches, muscle spasms, and chronic fatigue. A lentivirus is in the same family of virus as HIV which often has a slow onset of disease; so my symptoms came on progressively and it took a while for them to develop fully. About a year into the illness, I began sporadically falling down with attacks of paralysis alternating with extreme spasms of pain down my entire spinal cord.  These resulted in several ambulance rides, emergency room visits and hospitalization where I was provided palliative care for the pain. My husband and I were very frightened for my life and we were horrified that I could have even been possibly contagious.  It was very hard on us.  I did not know the genetically engineered characteristics of the lentivirus I was exposed to and Pfizer would not give me or my doctor my exposure records –so I couldn’t get the right medical care.

It was extremely hard to find a doctor at all to help me. Without those exposure records diagnosing my disease might as well be a 10 year research project, and no doctor is willing to take that on. Some of the doctors based in Universities (for example Yale and Columbia) who had the expertise to take on my case were extremely unhelpful and outright hostile – I believe they had conflicts of interests due to Pfizer funding. Even now, my doctors aren’t sure how to help me without the exposure records.

What avenues did you pursue for a remedy?

I turned to  OSHA with three things in mind; I needed them to help me get my exposure records, but I also wanted them to do a safety inspection so I could return to work safely and I filed a claim for the retaliation I had faced when I spoke out about health and safety issues. The process was long and frustrating with little positive outcome, but OSHA did make Pfizer give me the named identity and description of the exposure. However, without the genetic map and complete nucleotide sequence this information was not sufficient to get me directed medical care. Pfizer asserted that this information was a trade secret, and OSHA ruled that trade secrets supersede my right to full exposure records.  So my life and health came second to Pfizer’s profits.

I also filed for workers’ compensation because I thought they might be able to obtain my exposure records. But the comp system ruled that it did not have the jurisdiction to order Pfizer to release my exposure records. I couldn’t prove what caused my illness because I didn’t have the records, which made the whole workers’ compensation process pointless. 

So I was finally forced into a civil lawsuit.  When the judge finally ordered Pfizer to give me my records, they claimed they had lost them. They just lied their way out of giving me my records and then the civil claims court threw out the part of the case dealing with my illness, which means that the judge did not allow us to raise before the jury the issue of my exposure related illness. This was done by a judge who later had to recuse herself because of a conflict of interest.

Consequently my civil case moved forward solely on grounds of free speech and whistleblower rights, and the jury eventually awarded me a $1.37 million verdict along with additional punitive damages because of Pfizer’s malicious behavior against me. But I haven’t seen a penny of that money yet.  Nor have I gotten any help for my health issues – the jury never even heard that I was sick! I’m still battling this disease, and I have had major out of pocket health costs. I have struggled through this lawsuit just so I could get access to the exposure records and get care.  I have never gotten even this basic level of justice for Pfizer making me sick. 

Besides the huge financial and health costs that you have faced as a result of unsafe working conditions, how else has this impacted you in terms of career, relationships, etc?

I’m changed forever, that’s for sure. My illness was very difficult, it still is difficult. You know, I am surprised that some people just really don’t understand the issues behind my case; they just don’t get it.

The experience of all this impacts your life in so many ways. My husband who has been hugely supportive of me through this process is being retaliated against as a consequence of my case. I had a lot of friends at Pfizer, and after this happened I lost most of my friends there, because they couldn’t talk to me for fear of retaliation. It was a horrible thing to experience.

In terms of my career, several attorneys have told me that once you file an OSHA claim, you’re immediately discounted from consideration for new jobs because prospective employers think you could be a problem. I did look for a job after I was fired, and I couldn’t get employment, but at this point, after everything I’ve experienced with Pfizer’s complete disrespect for its workers’ health and safety, I no longer have the desire to work in the biotech industry. I gave a lot of my time and expertise to my career and I don’t want to keep contributing to an industry that does not respect human rights and workers rights.

You won the case against Pfizer – how does that feel? What supported you through this difficult journey? 

Well I am happy with the result. I hope my case can shed light on the major problems facing workers with occupational illnesses and injuries. But whistleblowers need swifter, quicker protections. I also think a lot remains to be done to ensure that the biotech industry takes adequate health and safety precautions to protect its workers and the public.

Several things helped me through this process. First and foremost is my faith – without my faith it would have been a very, very difficult situation. Also my family support was incredible. The other thing that was very helpful was being in touch with other injured workers, so you understand that you’re not alone out there, you understand that others are going through the same suffering. I do still get angry sometimes.  But you have to control your anger and you have to try to work with other people. I have hope that we can do something eventually to better protect workers if we can get the right kind of people together.

What are some of the main problems you see in our systems to protect injured and ill workers, and what needs to happen to advance pro-worker change?

I think one of the main problems is whistleblower rights – I won my case but it has been 10 years. We [injured/ill workers] shouldn’t have to struggle through 10 years for a court case. The second problem is workers’ rights – for example workers must have rights to their exposure records. Workers must also have the right to speak out freely without fear of retaliation. We must create an environment where workers and companies can work together to help solve health and safety problems at the workplace. We need better, concrete protections for workers in light of the risks involved with these advanced technologies. Thirdly it would be very helpful to get a network of attorneys together to support injured and ill workers; it was very difficult to find an attorney. And then last of all, there are some serious conflicts of interest within industry, academics, and the government. I was dealing with such a powerful company; they had the influence and power to intimidate others into cooperating with them, making it much harder for me to move forward on all fronts, with my safety concerns, my medical care, and my legal case.

What needs to happen is building up a network of injured and ill workers that would have the power and leadership to impact the public, to make sure that people understand this is an issue. We as injured and ill workers often lack the resources and expertise to solve the problem, and many of us are still dealing with sickness, pain, or disability, so we need to form a collective – some sort of think tank – with attorneys and others who have the expertise we need. But we have to work together – use our collective leadership, knowledge, and experience to form an effective movement.

Becky McClain currently serves as a member of the board of directors with the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology and on a national committee as an advisor on injured workers’ rights. She was interviewed by NESRI for this post in Dec. 2012.