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Workers at 11 State Mental Hospitals Sue Over Safety : Blame Increase in Staff Injuries on Shortage of Personnel and Hazardous Conditions

Times Staff Writer

Workers at 11 state mental hospitals have filed suit against California authorities, charging that understaffing and unsafe working conditions have led to a rising incidence of injuries among workers.

Psychiatric technicians held press conferences at several state hospitals Thursday to draw attention to their legal battle for improved working conditions.

At Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, psychiatric technician Senga Garcia, 25, said that during her six years at the facility, she has suffered a broken elbow, fractured ribs and a lacerated liver in attacks by patients.

Garcia and others among about 450 psychiatric technicians who care for approximately 900 mentally ill patients at the hospital said injuries to both workers and patients are the result of understaffing.

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Safety Measures

The psychiatric technicians’ suit, which was filed last week in Sacramento Superior Court, seeks additional safety measures and about $8 million in damages.

The state hospital system’s 7,800 psychiatric technicians are represented in the suit by their union, the Communication Workers of America, which is involved in contract talks with the state.

Based on statistics from the Department of Industrial Relations, the union claims that the job of psychiatric technician is the most hazardous state occupation.

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Last year, there were 814 serious injuries and one death reported among the system’s psychiatric technicians, a union spokesman said. He added that the figure represents more than twice the number of injuries reported five years ago.

The suit is the latest in a series filed over the last four years by the union in which it has sought to improve allegedly unsafe working conditions.

Recognized Problem

A spokesman for the state Department of Mental Health, which is involved in administering five of the hospitals, including Metropolitan State Hospital, said the Deukmejian Administration has recognized the problem and taken steps to correct it.

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Current plans call for hiring an additional 630 workers over a three-year period at the hospitals administered by the Mental Health Department, said department spokesman Dean Owen.

However, union spokesman Peter Cervantes-Gautschi contends that despite state funding for additional positions, few have been filled.

The same is true, he said, of the remaining state hospitals administered by the Department of Developmental Services. About 400 additional positions were funded last year for the hospitals, but none have been filled, he said.

Christopher Waddell, legal consul for the state Department of Personnel Administration, who is representing the departments named in last week’s suit, declined to comment.

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