Union prods OMH to make new space safe for forensic patients, staff
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF members at Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Hospital began raising safety concerns last summer as the state Office of Mental Health began preparing to move them and the more than 200 patients they serve to renovated space in the Dunlap Building, adjoining Kirby on the Manhattan Psychiatric Center Campus on Wards Island in New York City.
PEF Division 267 at Kirby took steps then to get the state to address their concerns, and when PEF President Wayne Spence learned in early December that the move would take place in January and many concerns remained unanswered he pressed the state Office of Mental Health hard to arrange for an immediate “walkthrough” of both the Kirby and the Dunlap space. The union instituted several legal proceedings and made phone calls to top officials at both OMH and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
The effort worked and a joint walkthrough of both buildings was conducted December 20 with numerous state and union representatives from the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the NYS Correction Officers Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) as well as PEF.
“I appreciate the prompt response we received from the state and that we could have our representatives tour the buildings with management to discuss the details of the construction and the important concerns our members have about making their workspace as safe from potential attacks and violence as possible,” Spence said. “Our representatives from Division 267 and our key staff members were able to get answers to many questions and suggest ways to make the space in Dunlap safer before the inmates and staff members are transferred.”
The union members were worried the renovated space in Dunlap will not be appropriate for forensic patients who are not voluntary admissions, but are involuntarily sent there under criminal or civil law. Kirby is meant to provide maximum security for the confinement and psychiatric treatment of these individuals, some of whom are sent there until they are deemed competent to stand trial for crimes with which they have been charged, others who have been convicted of crimes but require more psychiatric treatment than is available in state prisons, and others who may not have been charged with a crime but who are deemed a potential danger to themselves and/or others.
Although the Kirby building, which was built in 1962 for use as a civil hospital, closed temporarily in the late 1970s and reopened in 1985 as a forensic psychiatric hospital, has failed to meet various current building codes and has many shortcomings, some PEF members who work there expressed concern that the new space in Dunlap might look nicer but actually pose more hazards, and make it harder to prevent violent attacks by inmates on their fellow inmates and staff.
An officer in PEF Division 267 at Kirby raised her concerns about the move last August and forwarded them to PEF’s members of the joint statewide health and Safety Committee and the union’s health and safety staff. Later, a complaint was filed with the state Labor Department’s Bureau of Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) and PEF filed an improper practice charge December 3 with the state Public Employment Relations Board, and the union sought a court injunction to prevent OMH from moving the inmates and staff into Dunlap until it could be shown safe to house them.
PEF General Counsel Renee Delgado, who participated in the December 20 walkthrough, said, “In response to PEF’s advocacy, real changes were made at Dunlap to improve working conditions, and PEF’s Occupational Health and Safety Department compiled a report detailing follow up items and recommendations to safeguard members’ health and safety. PEF will continue to carefully monitor the situation to ensure compliance and PEF will strenuously support measures to improve the health and safety of its members.”
Delgado added that, “While PEF will not pursue the matter at PERB in light of the developments since early December, PEF stands ready to enforce its members’ rights through all appropriate forums should the need arise.”
Among the many kinds of concerns the PEF members have are securing furniture to the floor so it cannot be used as weapons or to barricade entrances and exits to rooms, members are worried that doors to rooms swing inward rather than outward,, Exit signs and other light fixtures could be torn down and used as weapons or the wiring could be used for ligatures, ledges in rooms especially at windows might be used by inmates to launch an attack from above, sight lines for observation and to prevent ambushes of staff or inmates, hallways too narrow to allow inmates to be flanked by staff members escorting them, and many other worries were expressed.
Overall, the union felt management took these concerns about potential workplace violence hazards seriously and already had begun addressing some of them after it received the division’s report and list of potential hazards last summer.
“The reports I received from our staff who participated in this walkthrough indicate that many of the potential hazards reported by our members are being addressed,” Spence said. “OMH has committed to making more changes to address hazards noted during the walkthrough. Each building has some advantages that the other does not, but it appears that some changes we have requested in the Dunlap space have been made and should continue to be made.
“And. while I also hear that some PEF members at Kirby are still very skeptical of whether they will be more safe in the Dunlap Building, I think the key to achieving optimal safety lies in a sincere, fair and joint effort between management and the union. We have lacked effective joint labor-management and health and safety committees at Kirby. These committees are required under the PS&T contract, and the employer is required by state law to work with the union to assess the potential for workplace violence and to develop plans to prevent it.
“That kind of a consistent, efficient and sincere joint effort would go a long way toward building confidence, decreasing potential dangers and actual attacks and injuries,” Spence added. “Ultimately, everyone would benefit. I believe that building that sense of common purpose, respect and mutual trust will be key to making everyone involved feel safer and more confident by next year when January 1, 2021, comes around. Those changes may be the hardest to come by, but the most valuable.”
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