By Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers
EVERETT — Autopsies at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office are being performed in ways that respect the dignity of the dead, but there are problems with management, employee morale and workplace behavior, according to a consultant’s report released Wednesday.
Dr. Norman Thiersch, the county’s medical examiner, is viewed by 14 of 19 employees interviewed as having “poor interpersonal skills and leadership skills,” according to a Nov. 28 report by consultant Michael Fitzpatrick.
Some employees complained that Thiersch is prone to angry outbursts. That’s something Thiersch denies, the consultant said, but the medical examiner did recall throwing a scalpel at a technician.
“The employee was unresponsive so Dr. Thiersch threw a scalpel in the employee’s direction but was not actually throwing the tool at the employee,” Fitzpatrick reported.
The independent review of the county morgue was conducted after earlier inquiries by County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office found little amiss with autopsies. Reardon’s office had identified some management shortcomings. Members of the County Council had urged the outside review.
Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson said the new report contains helpful recommendations that he plans to implement. The county paid $8,000 for the review.
“The review of staff reveals what was already known: Due to difficult financial conditions, budgetary cutbacks, and a prolonged recession, working conditions are difficult and additional training is needed to improve morale and office relationships,” Haakenson said. “I’ve already advised the ME’s office to work with our Human Resources department, and following recommendations in the report, we will be conducting additional training and teambuilding efforts to improve those conditions.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office is responsible for determining cause and manner of death. Thiersch has led the office since 1998 and oversees about a dozen staff members, plus a $1.9 million budget.
Some staff have been critical of how the office is being run. A former employee even wrote to Reardon and the County Council early this year with a list of concerns.
A March report by Reardon’s human resources director found little merit to the ex-employee’s concerns about high turnover and handling of personnel issues.
The condition bodies after autopsy was also scrutinized. There have been a handful of written complaints from funeral homes since 2003, mainly about the condition of blood vessels in the neck.
In a report that aired in May, a Seattle TV station used those complaints and interviews with anonymous sources to suggest bodies were being mutilated. The TV report and the former employee’s letter about management concerns prompted the County Council in June to call on Reardon’s office to conduct an independent investigation.
Reardon’s office investigated during the summer and found no widespread problem with autopsies.
The consultant reached similar conclusions after interviewing multiple employees and managers representing 18 area funeral homes and crematoriums.
However, the report raised questions about the medical examiner not having standard protocols for gathering evidence in death investigations, including the way bodies are handled in the field.
Among the consultant’s recommendations are that the medical examiner’s office implement standard operating procedures for investigations, and set a deadline for the work to be completed.
The consultant also suggested coaching and other steps for Thiersch and his management team to improve communication within the department.
The consultant reached the conclusions after interviewing a number of current and past employees of the medical examiner’s office.
“The underlining theme in interviews with staff members is poor leadership, miscommunication, a feeling of harassment and mistrust between management and staff,” the consultant found.
The report gives the executive’s office solid recommendations for how to improve management at the Medical Examiner’s Office, County Council Chairman Dave Gossett said.
“The executive clearly needs to address the issues that have been raised, but they are all solvable,” Gossett said. “In essence, they have to improve communication and provide management training.”
The report puts the biggest fears to rest about autopsies, he said.
“It appears from this neutral investigation that there have been some problems in the past, but they have been relatively small and as soon as brought to the medical examiner’s attention, addressed,“ he said.
Still, the executive’s office would have been better off seeking out a third party for the review when serious questions about autopsies first arose.
While the survey of funeral homes by Reardon’s office reached similar conclusions as the one by the consultant, Gossett said “it wasn’t seen as independent and people questioned it.”