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More bodies may pile up at the Forensic Science Centre, St James, after forensic pathologists Dr Valery Alexandrov and Dr Eslyn Mc Donald-Burris rejected employment contracts from the Ministry of Justice, saying they do not include medical coverage or allowances for continuing medical education. Sources said since last year, both pathologists have been clamouring about the terms and conditions under which they worked. However, while Mc Donald-Burris has gone on leave since October, Alexandrov has opted to continue working without a contract with the hope that the ministry will soon provide proper medical coverage. According to a contract obtained by the T&T Guardian, Alexandrov was offered a basic salary of $26,300 a month, a $2,700 transport allowance, a $10,000 duty allowance for extended work hours, an incentive allowance of $10,000, telephone allowance of $350 and a housing allowance of $5,000.
However, while he is entitled to personal leave, compassionate leave in the event of a family death and sick leave, there is no medical insurance coverage. Gratuity is paid on the basis of satisfactory completion of duties equivalent to 20 per cent of the gross salary earned. During a meeting with the Ministry of Justice last Wednesday, both Alexandrov and Mc Donald-Burris were asked to submit proposals for a new contract. “Right now I am working without a contract and they have not renewed Dr Burris’s contract. We met with the ministry officials and we raised the issue of proper health insurance,” Alexandrov said. He revealed that pathologists were exposed to dangerous decomposition gases from corpses as well as toxic chemicals such as acetone, formalin and carcinogens which cause lung, dental and ocular (eye) problems. “The people in the ministry did not know we are exposed to these diseases which cause cancer. During the meeting director, human resources at Ministry of Justice Desmond Hamilton and senior human resource officer Joy Boodhoo were sitting with eyes open wide when we told them about the conditions under which we work. They said nobody ever gave them this information about us before,” Alexandrov said.
He added that the Forensic Science Centre had only five mortuary attendants, when ideally there should be ten. “The X-ray technician is exposed to radiation and we are working with dangerous substances like gunpowder residue and formalin (a substance used to preserve tissue from decomposing), which is ten per cent carcinogenic (cancer-causing). In every other part of the world medical insurance is provided,” Alexandrov said. He added that all doctors registered with the Medical Board had to do continuous medical education, but no educational allowance is provided in the pathologists’ contract.
57 autopsies in ten days
Since the start of the new year, Alexandrov said he had done 57 autopsies in ten days. Since McDonald-Burris is not on duty, Alexandrov said work is shared with pathologist Dr Hughvon Des Vignes. “Normally our average workload weekly is 20 to 25 bodies a week and this is higher than World Health Organization guidelines, which stipulate that a pathologist was supposed to do between 250 to 350 autopsies a year. Last year I did 1,026 autopsies,” Alexandrov said. He explained that the Forensic Science Centre was operating below World Health Organization (WHO) standards. Saying it was true that T&T could not match the salaries in the United States, Alexandrov said he hoped that proper standards for procedures could be developed before his tenure in T&T ends. He said while McDonald-Burris was working on the financial aspects of their contracts, he was working on the organisational, environmental and administrative clauses.
“I have documents from the European Union, which comprises 28 countries, and every country has a forensic service and a special commission to develop standards of procedures,” Alexandrov explained. Asked why he was continuing to work without a contract, Alexandrov said his parents and most of his family were killed in the Holocaust, the state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II. “I sympathise with people when they lose their loved ones. How can I send them away when they sit waiting for hours to get the autopsy done,” Alexandrov said. He added that the planned new state-of-the-art forensic centre would not function effectively unless it was properly staffed with at least four pathologists and ten mortuary attendants.
Training coming for forensics
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Emmanuel George said he was unaware of the problems being faced by the pathologists at the centre. He said, however, that plans were afoot to build a modern facility and to train people in forensic sciences. Last year, $3.7 million was approved to upgrade the centre. George referred further questions to Minister of Tertiary Education Fazal Karim, who said a masters in forensic science will be offered at the newly opened San Fernando Teaching Hospital from September. “The Faculty of Medical Sciences, UWI, St Augustine, is taking a proactive role in strengthening the criminal justice system, and bolstering the efforts of the Government in crime detection and eradication, through the master’s degree in forensic science,” Karim said. “This programme is envisaged to be a multi-disciplinary professional programme which incorporates physical and biological sciences, criminal investigation, psychology and law to provide a comprehensive understanding, professionalism and a skilled approach to the evidentiary process in crime.” Karim said the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences would provide laboratories and teaching expertise to deliver the programme.