HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Inspectors from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations performed a surprise inspection at Hawaii State Hospital Wednesday, as part of a workplace violence probe launched after Hawaii News Now exposed serious injuries employees have suffered from mental patients there.
A state labor department spokeswoman would not comment in detail because it's an ongoing investigation but said the probe centers on why employees are getting injured at the hospital.
In interviews first aired November 11, Hawaii News Now revealed concussions, fractured jaws and other painful injuries suffered by four staffers who'd been attacked by violent mental patients, keeping them out of work for weeks, months and even years.
"After what the doctors told me, he said the next kick in the head, the next punch in the head could end my life. That kind of stunned me. Because in that respect, I'm afraid to go to back to work," said Josh Akeo, a registered nurse who has been out of work for more than three months after a patient repeatedly kicked him in the head when he tried to break up a fight between two patients.
"Based on the workplace violence complaints, we are investigating," Shawna Lau Kong, a spokeswoman for the state labor department said Wednesday. She said an investigation could take weeks or months.
State Sen. Clayton Hee (D – Kaneohe, Kahuku, Wahiawa), who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, said, "This is long overdue and I'm glad to hear that."
Hee and State Sen. Josh Green (D- Kona, Ka'u), an emergency room doctor who chairs the Senate health committee, are working to schedule Senate briefings on State Hospital problems next month, as part of a separate Senate investigation.
"Clearly your media station has sent a very strong signal that there are problems at the hospital. And that signal has permeated the Department of Health and the Department of Labor, as it should be," Hee said Wednesday.
Reached for comment about the workplace violence investigation, State Hospital Acting Administrator Bill Elliott said, "We will cooperate and open the hospital up to them for whatever they're here to investigate."
Employees have complained about a lack of training to deal with violent mental patients.
"We need training to keep ourselves safe," Akeo said.
Wednesday was the first day on the job for a new safety training officer at the State Hospital, a position that's been vacant for about six months.
It's a move some employees said was long overdue. They asked to remain anonymous because they claimed their careers will be damaged and they'll be "blacklisted" for speaking out.
Those employees questioned the qualifications and experience of the new employee hired as well as other key staffers and mid-level managers. They also said the training video used to teach new staff how to deal physically with mental patients is more than 25 years old and needed to be upgraded, along with the entire training program.
They said staffers are sometimes elevated to supervisory and management because of nepotism and favoritism, not because they're good at their jobs or have hands-on experience, adding to the difficulty of dealing with a complex mental hospital where most of the patients have been committed by the courts.
Employees have also complained of understaffing. A Hawaii News Now investigation found that 34 percent of the para-medical assistant positions were vacant at the hospital earlier this month. Those staffers can help subdue dangerous mental patients.
Hee said he met Tuesday with State Health Director Loretta Fuddy to discuss the State Hospital and she told him it is 95 percent compliant with staffing requirements.
Hee said he told her 100 percent staffing should be the minimum.
"That she should seek to have 110 percent or 120 percent," Hee said. "Because every staff member that gets injured, it costs the taxpayers a lot of money in time off the job as well as to the injured worker in terms of their physical and psychological well being."
Employees said different units at the State Hospital may appear to be fully staffed on paper, with every position filled. But when several employees are pulled from the floor to monitor one-to-one patients who are a danger to themselves or others, the number of staff to respond to incidents gets dangerously low.
Also, employees said, many assaults happen when staffing levels are down because of vacations, sickness, injuries or even during meal breaks when a couple of staff are off the unit for just a half hour or so.
Hee said he was upset to hear the claims of State Hospital psychiatric technician Ryan Oyama, who said the day after he did an on-camera interview with Hawaii News Now about the 60 assaults he's endured, his supervisor threatened him with firing for speaking to the media.
"I questioned the director of health about that yesterday and she said they are investigating that because that is wholly out of line, for a supervisor to threaten an injured worker with his job in this case," Hee told Hawaii News Now Wednesday.
The facility was under federal court oversight until 2006, following years of problems there.
"The last thing we want is to engage in another federal oversight compliance issue. But if that's what it takes, believe me, that's where we'll go," Hee said.
This is not the first time Hee, who represents parts of Kaneohe where the hospital is located, has complained about assaults on employees there. About five years ago, he raised concerns and one public worker union filed a grievance about staff injuries.