SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A workers' lawsuit against the Utah State Hospital is on hold pending the outcome of a state safety citation against the facility.
The suit filed about 11/2 years ago said that when employees in the hospital's Forensics Unit complained about being attacked by patients, hospital officials retaliated.
The Utah Occupational Safety and Health investigated the employee complaints and issued a citation against the hospital in January 2002. Hospital officials have appealed the citation.
"Our opinion is we're operating the facility in the way we think it ought to be operated," hospital administrator Mark Payne said.
In December, 4th District Court Judge Claudia Laycock dismissed most of the suit because under state workers' compensation law, employees cannot sue employers over safety issues -- unless the employer knew of but allowed the hazard to continue or injury to occur.
The Occupational Safety citation said the hospital knew of the safety issues but didn't correct them -- that makes it willful, said Justin Heideman, attorney for the employees.
That citation is key to the lawsuit, he said. As long as it remains under appeal, the judge can't consider it in ruling on the employees' complaints, Heideman said.
A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 27.
The Forensics Unit is the maximum security ward of the Utah State Hospital. Not all the patients in this ward are mentally ill -- some are sent from district courts for evaluation.
The hospital administration, however, is reluctant to restrain or seclude patients, who may be acting out of delusions that are part of their mental illness, Payne said. He wants to maintain a therapeutic atmosphere and avoid punitive consequences.
Hospital officials also fear that that relying too much on restraint in dealing with violent patients could affect the facility's accreditation and funding.
Occupational Safety investigators said in a 2002 report that hospital managers were aware of patient assaults on employees "but did not fully address methods to reduce workplace violence incidents for fear of negative impact on ... accreditation."
Hospital administrators contend they can reduce restraint and seclusion hours while also reducing threats and attacks on staff members.
Employee safety is an ongoing effort at the hospital, but it's not realistic to expect that there would be no incidents in the Forensics Unit, Payne said.
"If people weren't somewhat dangerous, they wouldn't be here," he said.
Occupational Safety said the hospital is the fourth highest state agency for workers compensation claims.
But that's not surprising, when compared to other state jobs -- most are low risk clerical jobs, said Lee Bennion of the state Division of Risk Management.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)