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DHHR defends worker treatment at Sharpe Hospital

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources official said this week that the agency takes employee and patient safety very seriously at William R. Sharpe Hospital in Weston.

Sharpe Hospital treats patients with mental difficulties, including many prisoners who have been convicted of crimes related to psychiatric problems.

"In addition to the various risks that are faced by all health-care providers, there exists the challenge of responding to potentially violent patients while respecting and maintaining the rights of those same patients to be cared for in an environment that is free from restraint and abuse," DHHR spokeswoman Allison C. Adler said.

John Thompson, president of UE Local 170, which represents state employees, said last week that workers at Sharpe Hospital filed 180 complaints last year about working conditions and perceived threats to their safety.

Many of those complaints came from hospital employees who said they were physically attacked by patients sent to Sharpe after being sentenced to prison.

Thompson specifically criticized what he said is the failure of the Office of Safety and Health Administration, part of the West Virginia Division of Labor, to examine those complaints.

Before current leaders recently took over, Thompson said, officials running the Division of Labor and OSHA regularly investigated employee complaints. The leaders now, he said, argue that OSHA does not have the legal responsibility to oversee psychiatric-care hospitals.

West Virginia's OSHA law was passed because the federal OSHA does not cover state employees.

Adler said West Virginia Code 21-3A-2(d) extends the state OSHA's authority to cover public employers, including "the state or any department, division, bureau, board, council, agency or authority of the state, but shall not include the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and the Legislature."

Adler said, "William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital is not a public employer as defined in the aforementioned statute."

Thompson said last week, "We don't support that interpretation of the statute."

Adler said the DHHR recognizes that "its response to complaints and incidents involving workplace safety has important implications for the agency's resources, worker safety and health, and patient care.

"Employee training focuses on practices to minimize risk, increase the competence and compassion of employees, improve the quality of information and to implement mechanisms to identify areas to improve care in a safe and caring environment," Adler said.

Gordon Simmons, a Local 170 organizer, said Monday, "If Sharpe Hospital took worker safety seriously, why have they ignored for years the court order to replace flimsy nursing stations with something durable enough to offer protection from violent patients?

"Why did they force injured workers to clock out to get medical attention, until forced by a union grievance in 2012 to obey the law?

"The crisis training provided employees is worse than ineffective," Simmons added. "It has been used to discipline and even fire workers who so much as raise their arms to block a blow from a violent patient intent on causing physical harm."

Adler said, "Mandatory training in crisis intervention and prevention programming begins at orientation and continues annually throughout an employee's tenure.

"Our staff works through a system of early identification of developing issues and verbal de-escalation of a potential crisis. Pre-shift team meetings are conducted as a proactive measure to identify current patient moods, behaviors and issues.

"In the event that a situation cannot be resolved through verbal de-escalation or non-physical interventions, our highly-trained staff will respond swiftly to eliminate the risk of harm to the patient involved, other patients and their fellow employees," Adler said.

Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said Monday, "We've got a real problem at Sharpe Hospital. Our employees have a host of problems with their compensation and amount of overtime they are asked to work. They are understaffed, have to work long shifts and deal with some pretty dangerous people.

"When you go into Sharpe Hospital, the place is immaculately clean. It appears the patients are getting really good quality care. The problem is the way the employees are being treated.

Adler said, "All employee related incidents are recorded, investigated and reviewed by the facility safety committee and administration to examine best practices and opportunities for improvement."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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