Atascadero State Hospital fined for unsafe working conditions

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comNovember 30, 2012 

Atascadero State Hospital

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Updated with new information: Atascadero State Hospital has been fined for the second time this year by a state agency claiming unsafe working conditions.

 

On Thursday, state safety investigators issued two citations totaling $25,675 in fines against the maximum-security facility primarily relating to patient assaults on employees, according to state documents.

The hospital treats mentally ill and violent offenders who committed or were accused of crimes.

Administrators can appeal the citations within 15 working days. In a statement, they said the Department of State Hospitals has been collaborating with Division of Occupational Safety and Health “through ongoing meetings and workgroups to resolve these issues.”  The agencies hope to develop ways to add safety upgrades for staff working with patients at the state’s five mental health facilities.

“The … findings emphasize what we’ve been saying all along: More needs to be done — and done quickly — to protect those who work and live at Atascadero State Hospital,” ASH psychiatric technician Tessa Linhares said in a separate statement. She also serves as her employee union’s chapter secretary.

In a June inspection of the forensic hospital, state Cal/OSHA investigators found that employees were exposed to patient assaults during and before the inspection, which poses a hazard, documents say. That finding brought the more serious $25,000 fine against the hospital.

Further, the facility didn’t follow state safety codes by not effectively implementing corrective measures to protect staff from violence, the documents say.

Always using the buddy system and effective alarm systems, having security personnel present and ensuring the availability of sufficient trained staff on all shifts are among some examples that weren’t met, the safety agency said.

In reviewing records, investigators found an average of 10 staff injuries from patient attacks occurred per month from January to September of this year.

The Tribune regularly publishes the facility’s preliminary attack reports to provide a snapshot of the daily violence that occurs at ASH.

In the last week or so, nursing employees said they received head, neck and back injuries while working with patients inside the facility, according to a roundup of the most recent attacks.

The latest incidents occurred on Nov. 21 and 23, according to the hospital.

Cal/OSHA also issued less-severe violations for administrators’ incomplete record-keeping and for blocking a light and door-lock panel with a table. Those violations brought the additional $675 fine.

The record-keeping violation found that injured employees’ names were “erased” from state records that safety investigators requested, documents say.

The latest citations came about nine months after an employee complaint to the same agency spurred an investigation that resulted in penalties totaling $38,555, also for unsafe workplace conditions.

That complaint was lodged by the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians’ ASH chapter because the group didn’t “want anybody to die," chapter president Paul Hannula previously said.

It wasn’t immediately clear Friday who lodged the more recent complaint.

To date, all five of the state’s forensic hospitals for people with mental illnesses — Atascadero, Coalinga, Napa, Metropolitan and Patton — have been cited by Cal/OSHA for assaults and injuries to staff, “with total fines now pegged at more than $200,000,” according to the statewide Psychiatric Technicians’ union.

The union’s legal counsel believes that Cal/

OSHA may consolidate all of the facilities’ citations “into a single set of hearings since many of the hospitals’ safety problems are shared throughout the system,” according to a statement by the group.

Investigators are currently adjusting Thursday’s citations, according to Cal/OSHA. The communications department didn’t know what the changes were or how long they would take but said they would issue an update when new information is received.

Original: State safety investigators on Thursday issued two citations totaling $27,675 in fines against Atascadero State Hospital for unsafe working conditions and patient assaults on employees who treat the facility's mentally ill and violent offenders, according to state documents.

ASH can appeal the citations.

When asked for comment late Thursday, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health said its investigators are currently adjusting the issued citations. The communications department didn’t know what the changes were about or how long they would take.

But according to the citation documents issued Thursday, the more recent violations are based on a June inspection that found employees were exposed to patient assaults. That hazard alone brought $27,000 in fines against the forensic hospital. Investigators said they found an average of 10 staff injuries from patient attacks occurred per month from January to September of this year.

A less-severe violation also found incomplete record-keeping where injured employees’ names were erased from records that safety investigators requested.

Thursday's move came about nine months after an employee complaint to the same agency spurred an investigation that resulted in penalties totaling $38,555, also for unsafe workplace conditions.

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