Ohio State is nearing its final breath in a workers’ compensation claim for Olga Stavridis, a woman who suffered a months-long illness that resulted in the loss of part of her lung.
Stavridis’ claim already has been validated through two hearings at the Ohio Industrial Commission, which deals with all workers’ compensation claim appeals in the state. On March 22, OSU appealed for a third hearing with the commission. A commission-level hearing is awarded on a discretionary basis and is rare, according to OIC’s website.
Hearing officers at the district and staff level both allowed the claim in favor of Stavridis.
“Usually in about a month or so the Industrial Commission renders a decision saying yes or no that they will hear the appeal,” said Ron Koltak, Stavridis’ lawyer. “But (OSU isn’t) guaranteed a third hearing.”
If the Industrial Commission denies OSU’s appeal for a third hearing, its only option would be to file a claim in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
Stavridis’ coworker, Amy Franklin, who also got ill in 2009, recently filed her own workers’ compensation claim under advisement from Koltak. She said she believes OSU handled the situation poorly.
“It haunts me to this day that I heard Olga say ‘Chris (Mulholand, facilities engineer in the college of engineering), is it OK for me to be sitting in here breathing this stuff? I have three little kids at home,'” Franklin said. “He just kind of laughed and shook his head. I just feel like we were dismissed all along when we would express our concerns.”
The two women were diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a fungal disease that affects the lungs. Stavridis was diagnosed in June 2009 after taking sick leave several weeks prior. Franklin was diagnosed in October 2009 while having surgery for a different lung condition that doctors had misdiagnosed. Histoplasmosis is caused when one breathes in histoplasmosis spores, which then affect the lungs.
“The only way to get histoplasmosis is when the earth is dug up and spores become airborne,” said Dr. George Deepe, a leading researcher of histoplasmosis and professor at the University of Cincinnati. “People who like to go caving or spelunking should be familiar with this disease.”
Stavridis said she believes she contracted the disease after box fans were placed in the ceiling of her office suite in Hitchcock Hall in an attempt to clear the office of a musty odor following a flooding that occurred in March 2009.
Shortly after the fans were turned on, there was debris in the air and particulate matter covering the office suite.
OSU’s main argument in the case is that Stavridis lives near a school that was undergoing serious renovations. OSU’s lawyer, David McCarty, argued it is more likely Stavridis got the disease near her home, Koltak said.
McCarty referred The Lantern to Amy Murray, spokeswoman for the university, for all questions.
Stavridis is filing for compensation of lost wages for her sick leave as well as compensation for medical costs, which would be paid to her insurance company. Stavridis’ salary for 2009, the year of her illness, was $38,220, according to a database of public university salaries that is run by Collegiate Times. At the time, she was working as an administrator in the College of Engineering; she is now teaching within the engineering program.
Franklin, who works with the internship program in the College of Engineering, is also seeking compensation of lost wages and medical costs. She estimates that she lost a little more than two weeks of work. Franklin’s salary in 2009 was $38,459, according to the Collegiate Times database. She did not have an estimate of her medical costs.
In the first two hearings, Koltak presented information of tests completed in the building as evidence that Franklin and two others, Emmett Crowley and Chissy Nkemere, also contracted the disease around the same time after spending most of their days in Hitchcock Hall. Crowley and Nkemere are not working with Koltak on any claims.
“This is a pretty straightforward case; I’m not really sure why OSU is taking the stance that it is,” Koltak said.
Murray reiterated comments Wednesday that she made to The Lantern in January, saying that while OSU felt sympathetic toward Stavridis for her health problems, their cause is still believed to be a mystery.
“The university took timely and extensive steps to evaluate the health and safety of the work environment and our tests from outside experts did not reveal anything substantial,” Murray said. “The university places a high priority on employee safety and we have done everything possible to remedy and investigate the matter.”
OSU also submitted tests into evidence for the hearings that came back positive for histoplasmosis spores in November 2010. An OSU-hired consultant gathered samples from 44 sites in the building and four of them tested positively.
“This corroborated the positive test results of the ceiling tiles located in Olga’s office tested in the summer (of 2009),” Koltak said.
Despite those results, President E. Gordon Gee claims there is no causal link between any of the testing done and the four people who have contracted the disease since the flood in 2009.
“If we did that testing in my house there would probably be some positive results” Gee told The Lantern on April 13.
“That’s the point. There is no evidence between that and what is happening.”
Deepe said that while histoplasmosis is a disease indigenous to the Ohio River Valley, there is no way to know how common the spores actually are or how commonly the disease is contracted because it is not “reportable,” meaning that physicians and laboratories have no obligation to report the cases they encounter.
Gee said the reason OSU is fighting the claims and trying to deny workers’ compensation is because of “precedent,” not people. If the university awarded one workers’ compensation claim, it would have to award them all.
But Stavridis desires a new precedent as well.
“There is nothing in (pursuing this hearing) for me other than my lost wages,” Stavridis said. “What I find most important is to be sure that this practice for remediating a flood months later will never be performed again.”
The women said they hope that from their experiences, Facilities Operations and Development at OSU will develop a standard procedure for dealing with flooded buildings that does not include having box fans circulating debris from the attic into the office spaces.
“This situation was definitely avoidable,” Franklin said.
Franklin and Stavridis are also involved in a personal injury lawsuit against the university. No updates are available for that case.