Forced to work in filth? Employees concerned about flooding inside state hospital

LAKEWOOD, Wash. — Multiple employees at Western State Hospital have come forward to raise concerns about flooding inside the buildings on campus. "Feces ... human feces, falling from the ceiling," is how one employee described the problem. She asked that her identity be protected fearing retaliation for speaking out. "It's never been this bad, this is so bad you can hardly describe it; when it's literally falling from the ceilings."

KIRO 7 obtained photos from inside Building 19, including the basement, which houses medical records and human resources employees.

It appears the initial flooding happened in April when patients stuffed something in the toilets two floors up. It not only forced the areas to be shut down, but also contaminated some patient medical records. "They have to be freeze-dried, the ones that have been damaged, and that's going to cost taxpayers a lot of money," the whistleblower told KIRO 7.

"This is a repeated issue over many, many years, over the past decade," said Paul Vilja, a registered nurse at Western State. He filed a Labor and Industries complaint on behalf of the employees and patients potentially affected by the flooding, which he said is not an isolated event. "We'll have leaking, we'll have sewage events, we'll have air system problems, water problems, so forth."

This is just a small part of how problems at Western State, which come at a high cost to taxpayers. A KIRO 7 investigation in September found the state has paid $62 million in injury claims since 2009 because of repeated assaults on staff by patients.

The Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Western State, has admitted that issues with the aging building did contribute to the hospital losing $53 million a year in federal funding. During an interview earlier this year, Sean Murphy, assistant secretary, DSHS Behavioral Health Administration, explained why. "Most of the deficiencies were based, (the) majority (were) based, around the physical plant. The recession was a challenge to state hospitals, both on the staffing and the physical plant. There just wasn't enough money to push forward things that needed to be done."

After the September investigation, multiple employees reached out to KIRO 7 to share their own frustrations from inside the hospital, not just about violence, staffing levels or contaminated work spaces, but a feeling that management isn't listening. "The problem is they're an echo chamber, They'll only hear their own narrative," said Vilja.

Our whistleblower agrees: "People are starting to give up, they have no sense that there's ever going to be anything given back to them." She has worked at Western State for more than 25 years. While she's not ready to retire, it's unlikely she'll stay at Western State much longer. "I would have loved to have stayed there longer,"  she said as tears formed in her eyes. "It could be a really great place for these patients. It used to be."

The cost for decontamination and ongoing construction is about $270,000, but the final cost won't be known until the project is finished in February. Labor and Industries says it closed the safety complaint after DSHS showed evidence it was mitigating the issue.

In an email to staff members on Wednesday, Western State CEO Dave Holt also mentioned another sewage issue that happened in September:

"Drains on Ward C1 were clogged where Human Resources and Medical Records had workspace. The ground floor was flooded with sewage coming up from floor drains. When the drains were fixed, Environmental Services ensured that all the areas were properly disinfected. An assessment by the hospital's industrial hygienist in October showed all the areas were dry with no signs of moisture or black mold."

DSHS also provided a statement to KIRO 7 from Murphy for this story:

"DSHS takes workplace safety very seriously. We work to ensure that our staff, at all of our facilities, come to work in a safe and healthy workplace - that includes environmental health. At WSH, we have an on-site, Industrial Hygienist.  It is that position's sole job to anticipate, recognize, evaluate and recommend controls for environmental and physical hazards that can affect the health and well-being of workers. Employees at Western are encouraged, if they feel there is an environmental health concern, to bring it up to their supervisor, or contact the facilities staff by either submitting a work order online or by telephone. I am so appreciative of the hard work that is done every day by all of our Behavioral Health Administration Staff in the best interest of our patients and clients."

See our previous investigation into violence at Western State here.

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