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.