North Carolina Mental Hospital Fined for Worker Safety Violations

By MICHAEL BIESECKER | August 21, 2012

A government-run mental hospital with a history of problems has been fined after several employees were injured in attacks by patients or when they tried to intervene in fights.

The North Carolina Department of Labor issued $15,300 in fines against Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro after at least eight employees were injured this year.

The agency’s report cited the hospital with serious violations of federal workplace safety regulations, and said administrators failed to properly report some employee injuries to regulators. The report also makes suggestions for numerous policy changes at the hospital.

Julie Henry, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said Cherry administrators are still reviewing the findings, but that the agency disagrees with the violations and will appeal.

“In general, we believe some of the items in the report are issues we are already addressing,” Henry said.

Once North Carolina’s segregated mental hospital for blacks, Cherry has long had a reputation for patient abuse and questionable deaths. In 2008, federal officials revoked its certification to receive Medicaid and Medicare funding following the death of a patient who choked on his medication, hit his head and was left propped in a chair without medical attention for nearly a day.

The state responded by replacing the hospital’s director and implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for patient abuse. Soon, hospital employees complained the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, leaving them dangerously exposed to violent patients and fearing dismissal if they defended themselves.

The new report cites four violent episodes at the hospital since March when the employees were hurt. The report said workers were either outright attacked or hurt while trying to stop a patient from harming someone else, including a health care technician who was punched in the jaw by a patient described as being 6-foot-7-inches tall and weighing 350 pounds.

The report recommended the state “provide adequate resources, including staffing of sufficient numbers to ensure employees have the ability to protect themselves, to control patients, and restrain patients as needed to prevent patient attacks employees or other patients.”

Henry said Cherry administrators will meet with officials from the labor department to express their concerns about the accuracy of some issues raised in the report. She also stressed that progress has been made at Cherry in recent years, including the hospital regaining its federal certification in 2009.

“We are working continually to try to improve conditions for employees and certainly for our patients,” she said. “We focus on safety all the time.”

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