ST. PAUL, Minn. — A concern about worker safety has prompted the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect the Minnesota Security Hospital, a state-run facility that provides psychiatric treatment for nearly 400 adults deemed mentally ill and dangerous.
OSHA inspectors made an unannounced visit to the St. Peter facility on March 13, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson James Honerman confirmed Friday. The agency has not yet completed the inspection process, and Honerman said no details will be provided for several weeks.
OSHA’s last inspection of a worker safety complaint at the Minnesota Security Hospital was in 1991. That inspection did not result in any citations.
The St. Peter facility has been in turmoil for months, culminating in the forced resignation of top administrator David Proffitt in late March after employees complained that Proffitt created a hostile work environment and failed to protect the safety of the facility’s roughly 800 employees.
An investigation ordered by DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson found no evidence of a hostile work environment, but did find problems with Proffitt’s leadership style that led the agency to order Proffitt to either resign or be fired.
In April 2011, Proffitt resigned from his previous employer, Acadia Hospital in Maine, after an OSHA investigation found the hospital violated federal law by failing to take steps to protect employees from violent patients. The agency fined the hospital $11,700 after it found that at least 115 employees had been assaulted by patients from 2008 to 2010.
Employees at the Minnesota Security Hospital said they also face dangerous working conditions. Chuck Carlson, the president of AFSCME Local 404, the union that represents facility employees, said worker safety is the union’s top concern.
He said employees have been punched, kicked and even stabbed by patients over the years. Carlson has worked at the Minnesota Security Hospital as a security counselor for more than two decades.
Carlson met with one of the inspectors on March 13 for about an hour, he said. The official seemed primarily concerned about the number of worker injuries and whether employees had received adequate training on how to respond to violent patients, he said. The official did not say what prompted the visit, Carlson said, and did not say whether the facility would receive any citations.
In 2010, employees suffered 97 injuries serious enough to require a report to OSHA. Nearly two-thirds of the injuries were caused by a patient assault.
Injuries dropped in 2011. Employees reported 65 serious injuries. About half were the result of a patient assault.
For an injury to be reportable to OSHA, it must require medical treatment by a health care provider. Bandaging wounds, taking X-rays and using ice packs are not considered medical treatment. The OSHA number excludes most staff injuries, Carlson said.
“You have to take that information with a grain of salt,” he said. “If a client walks up to me tonight and punches me in the face, it doesn’t count.”
Carlson said he’s optimistic that a new training program, set to begin at the facility this week, will help reduce employee injuries. The training will focus on how to resolve conflicts and reduce violence, he said.
“The difference between an assaultive incident and one that goes well could be simply how the first 30 seconds go when you approach the patient,” he said. “If you walk up and basically say, ‘What are you doing? Stop it,’ things could go south. If you walk up and say, ‘Why are you upset? Let’s sit down and talk about this,’ it’ll probably go well.”
But, he added, “With some situations, no matter what you do, it’s almost like they’re predestined.”
Minnesota Department of Human Services spokesperson Patrice Vick said the department plans to meet soon with OSHA officials to review the findings of the inspection. She said DHS has also hired a new safety officer and is providing new training for employees on how to de-escalate violent situations. Proffitt, the former administrator who is currently working as a consultant for the facility, could not be reached for comment.
It will likely be several weeks before OSHA releases any details about the inspection, Honerman said.
First, OSHA will decide whether to issue any citations. If citations are issued, the Minnesota Security Hospital will have 20 days to appeal. None of the inspection information will be made public until the end of the appeal process, he said.
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