State Development Center Employees Face Greatest Danger of Injury

State Development Center Employees Face Greatest Danger of Injury

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- State workers facing the greatest danger of on-the-job injury are Corrections officers and employees in social services, with those at the Utah State Developmental Center the most at risk.

The center at American Fork is home to severely mentally and physically challenged people. Assisting in their everyday needs takes a toll on employees' backs, wrists and ankles and more than a third of the employees file Workers Compensation Fund claims each year.

"It is a higher-risk work environment," said Tim Villnave, a loss-control specialist for the Utah Office of Risk Management.

Three of the top four agencies for Workers Compensation claims over the past seven years -- Utah State Developmental Center, Department of Human Services, Utah State Hospital -- are social service providers.

Human Services includes divisions for youth corrections and child and family services. It employs 5,000 people.

Workers compensation claims from the developmental center alone typically total about $600,000 a year, according to state risk management reports. The amount for 2003 is just under $400,000, though claims are still being processed. The total for all state agencies last year exceeds $1.5 million.

"You do everything you can to keep your workers and your clients safe," Department of Human Services spokeswoman Carol Sisco said. "But there are going to be more injuries than someone doing a desk job."

Looking over injury reports for child and family services, John Mathews, human resources director, said it's difficult to pinpoint anything inherently dangerous about working in that division. There are slip-and-falls, dog bites and traffic accidents, all likely to have occurred as caseworkers go to people's homes to investigate child abuse.

Reasons for and causes of injuries at the developmental center where residents demand 24-hour care are more obvious.

"There are so many activities that have the possibility to cause injury," said Karen Clarke, developmental center superintendent.

Most developmental center residents are dependent on staff to move them out of beds and into wheelchairs and to bathrooms, showers and therapy. Some immobile residents must be rolled in their beds every couple of hours. Others may have to be moved from place to place as many as 15 times a day according to their needs, creating multiple situations that could result in employees' wrenched backs or sprained wrists.

New employees are informed of the potential for on-the-job injuries. They are required to demonstrate the ability to lift 50 pounds before they're hired. Workers are trained and retrained in lifting and moving techniques. They also have a variety of mechanical lifts at their disposal.

"We take this very seriously and are very concerned about it," said Brian Nelson, liability prevention specialist.

The number of workers compensation claims, which are at a seven-year low at the center, don't appear to be the product of inexperience. In 2002, for example, 23 percent of claims were filed by workers with less than one year on the job, while 36 percent came from those with one to five years experience. Employees with more than five years accounted for 33 percent.

To further reduce workplace injuries and safeguard residents, newly remodeled living quarters will have lifts built into bedrooms and bathtubs.

"It's something we're developing over time, but it takes a lot of money," Clarke said.

The Department of Corrections has the second highest number of Workers Compensation claims in the state. Spokesman Jack Ford estimates one-third of the injuries result from prisoner assaults.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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