Sunday, January 25, 2004

Even Corrections Officers Deserve To Come Home Alive

Throughout the 1990's a group of unions primarily representing health care, social service and retail workers, lobbied federal and state OSHA's for guidelines and enforcement action against employers whose employees were killed, hurt or threatened by preventable assaults. We made some progress at federal OSHA in health care and late night retail. OSHA issued guidelines and cited a handful of employers. Several state plans -- including California, Washington, Minnesota and Indiana -- made similar efforts in the health care and retail sectors.

One sector in which we never could make progress was corrections. "Hey, prisons are inherently dangerous places to work. They're full of people who want to kill you. How can you cite a prison for violence?" they laughed. "That's like citing a beach for getting wet."

Well, actually, no. Corrections officers should be able to say, just like every other worker, "We just came to work here, we didn't come to die." There are good procedures that, if enforced, are designed to minimize or even completely prevented assaults on corrections officer. So then why shouldn't OSHA be able to cite an institution if such recognized practices are not being followed, just as it could cite any other workplace for not providing safe working conditions?

Unfortunately, we have an example of how a preventable death can result from non-compliance with working procedures. Last June I reported about the death of Darla Lathrem, 38, at the Charlotte Correctional Institution in Florida. Lathrem, who was armed only with pepper spray and a radio, was attacked and killed by three inmates who then attempted to escape. Her body was discovered stashed in a locked closet amid the chaos of the attempted breakout.

A report on Lathrem's murder has just been released and showed that a number of prison procedures had not been followed that night:
  • Staff members failed to have two officers supervising the inmates who were working on the dormitories.

  • With inmates working at 10 p.m., no one was making sure that manpower was being utilized properly beyond normal hours at the construction site.

  • No one was enforcing the policy which mandates all employees wear a body alarm.

  • The inmates were not restrained during movement.

  • Policies regarding key control were not followed.

  • Policies regarding sensitive tools were not followed.

  • Security checks were not in place or monitored to make sure policies were enforced.
Now, given that a number of the institution's own safety policies were not being followed, is there any more reason that this workplace should not be cited by OSHA than any other workplace that isn't following safe working procedures? (Overlooking the fact that this is a state prison in Florida, one of 26 states that don't provide OSHA coverage for public employees.)

I also want to point out one more item in this report that may be of value when investigating accidents in your own workplace. Lathrem was not wearing a body alarm even though prison policy mandates that a body alarm be worn at all times. How many times in similar situations have you seem accident reports that list "Worker not following [whatever] procedure" as the cause of the accident?

But not in this case. Instead, the report correctly concluded that "No one was enforcing the policy which mandates all employees wear a body alarm." Even though prison department policy requires that all officers wear the alarm when inside the secure perimeter, the report noted that the majority of the officers on duty that night were not wearing the device. What we have is a management system failure -- a failure to enforce safe working procedures -- rather than a "blame the worker" for not following procedures.

More here and here, and an article about Darla Lathrem's family here.


Ed. Note: I was made aware of the existence of this report by an observant reader. Believe it or not, I don't have the time to read every newspaper in the United States, and depend on many of you (yes, YOU) to bring information to my attention. Thanks and keep it coming.

-- Jordan.