Health Care

VOSHA: Hospital must investigate complaints into worker injuries

psychiatric hospital
The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Saturday, September 23.

State regulators are demanding that a psychiatric hospital investigate patient assaults of four workers.

The workers were assaulted on September 12 at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin. Three workers were sent to the emergency room. Two of the four had “serious concussions” as a result of the assault, according to documents.

At the time of the incident, several mental health specialists reported that they had noticed the increased agitation of a patient, according to a public record. “Nothing was done to address the issue or prevent staff from risk of assault,” the report states.

The Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent a formal request Thursday to the hospital asking for an investigation into the incident.

VOSHA quoted a complaint from a hospital worker who wrote that: “[The Interim Director of Nursing] even told one mental health specialist [who was assaulted] in response to her asking for more help to address the issue, ‘If anyone can handle it, it’s you.’ As a result, 4 employees were assaulted and three of them were sent to the emergency room. [Two] received serious concussions and one [other] was injured as well. Another employee received a scratch where the skin was broken.”   

VOSHA is requiring the hospital to conduct an investigation and file report by October 5, with documentation about the incident, including video and photographs, and a corrective action plan. No penalty has been levied against the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital at this time. Nor is VOSHA conducting an inspection of the facility.

The Vermont State Employees Association obtained a copy of the letter from VOSHA to the General Counsel of the hospital on Thursday.

Dave Bellini, the president of the VSEA, said in a press release that the Vermont Department of Mental Health and the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital must “take the necessary steps now, not tomorrow to reduce the alarming number of patient-on-employee assaults” at the hospital.

“No one should ever have to report to work every day with the very real expectation that they might be assaulted,” Bellini said. “This will never, ever be acceptable to VSEA and its members, and we trust the State and DMH agree and will work with VSEA members to end this violence against workers now.” 

Melissa Bailey, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, said her office is negotiating with VOSHA over the findings.

“We have a different opinion about what we are and aren’t doing,” Bailey said.

An attorney for the department and the director of operations are now working at the hospital full time, she said to find out what challenges staff are facing and what improvements can be made.

“We share the concerns around patient and staff safety,” Bailey said. Department staff have met with workers on each of the hospital’s shifts.

“Our plan is to continue to work through the concerns VOSHA has identified and find ways to make improvements and make the changes we can within the confines of a patient hospital,” Bailey said.

Public records obtained by VSEA show that there were more than 200 incidents at the hospital between January 1, 2015 and May 30, 2016, or about 11 a week on average. While 95 percent of the incidents during that period were minor, according to Doug Gibson, communications director of the VSEA, some were moderate to severe. Minor incidents include being verbally threatened or brushed up against by a patient.

Bailey said in an email that the hospital was not fully open until 2016, when all of the 25 beds in the facility were online.

From June 2016 to June 2017, the hospital had 131 incident reports: in 32 percent of cases staff reported no injuries; in 57 percent there were minor injuries; in 11 percent moderate to major injuries were reported, according to Bailey. Staff injuries that rose to the moderate to major level were significant enough to warrant transfer to the Central Vermont Medical Center for treatment, she said.

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