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State jobs can take toll

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State corrections officers face many dangers inside the rough environment of a prison. Utah Highway Patrol troopers, too, might find themselves in harm's way in any number of unforeseen circumstances on the road.

But the state agency where more workers are injured on the job than any other is the Utah State Developmental Center. The American Fork campus is home to some of the state's most severely mentally and physically challenged people. Assisting in their everyday needs takes a toll on employees' backs, wrists and ankles.

"It is a higher-risk work environment," said Tim Villnave, a loss-control specialist for the Utah Office of Risk Management.

Developmental center employees file more Workers Compensation Fund claims than any department in state government, including Corrections and Public Safety. On average, more than one-third of the center's 720 employees, the majority of whom are direct-care providers, make claims each year.

Three of the top four agencies for claims over the past seven years — Utah State Developmental Center, Department of Human Services, Utah State Hospital — are social service providers. Human Services, which includes divisions for youth corrections and child and family services, employs some 5,000 people statewide.

Workers compensation claims from the developmental center alone typically total about $600,000 a year, according to state risk management reports. The amount for 2003 is just under $400,000, though claims are still being processed. The total for all state agencies last year exceeds $1.5 million.

"You do everything you can to keep your workers and your clients safe," Department of Human Services spokeswoman Carol Sisco said. "But there are going to be more injuries than someone doing a desk job."

Looking over injury reports for child and family services, John Mathews, human resources director, said it's difficult to pinpoint anything inherently dangerous about working in that division. There are slip-and-falls, dog bites and traffic accidents, all likely to have occurred as caseworkers go to people's homes to investigate child abuse.

"It's clear to me it's all kinds of stuff," he said.

Reasons for and causes of injuries at the developmental center where residents demand 24-hour care are more obvious.

"There are so many activities that have the possibility to cause injury," said Karen Clarke, developmental center superintendent.

Most developmental center residents are dependent on staff to move them out of beds and into wheelchairs and to bathrooms, showers and therapy. Some immobile residents must be rolled in their beds every couple of hours. Others may have to be moved from place to place as many as 15 times a day according to their needs, creating multiple situations that could result in employees' wrenched backs or sprained wrists.

New employees are informed of the potential for on-the-job injuries. They are required to demonstrate the ability to lift 50 pounds before they're hired. Workers are trained and retrained in lifting and moving techniques. They also have a variety of mechanical lifts at their disposal.

"We take this very seriously and are very concerned about it," said Brian Nelson, liability prevention specialist.

The number of workers compensation claims, which are at a seven-year low at the center, don't appear to be the product of inexperience. In 2002, for example, 23 percent of claims were filed by workers with less than one year on the job, while 36 percent came from those with one to five years experience. Employees with more than five years accounted for 33 percent.

To further reduce workplace injuries and safeguard residents, newly remodeled living quarters will have lifts built into bedrooms and bathtubs.

"It's something we're developing over time, but it takes a lot of money," Clarke said.

Semi-ambulatory residents pose a particular challenge for workers as they help them learn a measure of independence. Staff often find themselves having to break a fall.

"That's probably the greatest area of concern," said Nelson, noting the center holds regular safety committee meetings to help prevent and eliminate the potential for injuries.

Exposure to blood-borne pathogens is also an area of concern. Residents with psychological disorders in addition to mental disabilities also present a difficult problem, Clarke said. Some hit or dig their fingernails into care providers. The center issues Kevlar sleeves to staff members to protect their arms from scratches.

Aggression also is common in the Department of Corrections, which has the second highest number of Workers Compensation claims in the state. Spokesman Jack Ford estimates one-third of the injuries result from prisoner assaults on corrections officers.

"That's not unusual to have someone hit you or try to stab you," he said, noting a prison officer recently suffered a broken nose.

Corrections employs about 2,400 and supervises 22,000 prison inmates and parolees. In addition to corrections officers, it employs people in several areas including food services and maintenance.

"It runs the gamut of claims," Ford said. "We seem to have our share."

Two Adult Probation and Parole agents filed workers compensation claims after stumbling onto a meth lab while going to check on a parolee. A hazardous materials team was called in to decontaminate them. Another officer was recently injured in a car accident.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com