South Sound News

Tacoma's St. Joseph Medical Center fined by state L&I in nurse safety case

St. Joseph Medical Center scored an A in a nonprofit group’s latest hospital safety grades after being dinged with a D in the spring. Melissa Santos, Tacoma News Tribune Staff File

TACOMA, Wash. — State workplace safety regulators have cited and fined Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center in a case that gained renewed public attention amid current contract negotiations with nurses.

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The case involved a series of attacks on nurses by a patient in the hospital’s psychiatric unit, according to case records.

L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health on April 11 fined the hospital a total of $14,400 for three violations ranked as serious. The hospital was cited for two other serious violations. Three of the violations were in regard to the hospital’s safety committee, and two were in regard to the state’s code for procedures in conducting a preliminary investigation involving serious injuries.

In an emailed statement, Cary Evans, vice president for communications and government affairs with CHI Franciscan, said: “The safety of our patients and employees is our highest priority every day. The recent report by the Department of Labor identifies only procedural issues for review committees, and we are already in the process of addressing the structure of our safety committee to meet those concerns.

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“Our doors are open to everyone who needs our care, and we face unique safety challenges every day.”

Washington State Nurses Association had complained to the state that St. Joseph “had failed to furnish its employees a place of employment free from recognized hazards, had failed to provide adequate training, and failed to conduct a safety committee in accordance with state law.”

“The Division of Safety and Health cited the hospital for failing to conduct an effective, inclusive incident investigation into the assaults. Additional violations addressed the safety committee, which DOSH found did not effectively address safety topics and did not include the required number of employee representatives,” WSNA said in its release.

Frank Ameduri with L&I’s public affairs team told The News Tribune via email: “It’s important to remember that L&I is not investigating the assault. An assault can trigger an inspection, but L&I is looking at workplace safety and health issues, so the fines are related to any violations of those rules.”

The case, which was opened in October, re-entered the spotlight amid a recent informational picket by nurses at the facility.

The nurses’ contract negotiations have been ongoing for eight months and another round of meetings continued this week. The nurses seek a commitment to minimum-staffing standards that would allow them to take rest and meal breaks as well as their paid time off. They also seek market-competitive wages to boost recruiting and retention.

“It is my sincere hope that St. Joe’s will better protect employees as a result of these citations,” said Tami Green, a registered nurse and one of the staff involved in the assault case. “I have decades of experience working with psychiatric patients and have never been injured, physically and emotionally, like I was in this instance.”

WSNA worked with other unions in the current legislative session to strengthen the state’s workplace violence in health care statute. That measure has passed the Legislature and is on its way to the governor’s desk, and includes more specific requirements for workplace violence prevention plans and increased violence prevention training.

“Violence against nurses is a growing problem, and we have to address it through multiple avenues, including legislation, regulatory agencies and at the bargaining table,” said Sally Watkins, executive director of WSNA, in its release.

“The likelihood of health care workers being exposed to violence is higher than prison guards or police officers. That has to end.”

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