Executive Director Reports

Putting safety first: It’s a matter of life—and death


 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

“We have a right to the safest possible working conditions.”

The July-August 2019 issue of AFSCME Council 31’s On the Move pays special tribute to Troy Chisum, a sheriff’s deputy in Fulton County who was killed in the line of duty—shot down while responding to a domestic dispute.

His death is a powerful and painful reminder of the risks that countless public servants face on the job every day. Sometimes, like Troy, they sacrifice their lives. It was just two years ago that DCFS caseworker Pam Knight was brutally beaten when she tried to rescue a child from an abusive father. Pam eventually died from her injuries.

Thankfully, such deaths are rare. But serious, life-changing injuries are not. They happen almost daily—often with little public notice or awareness.

And far too often, they happen needlessly—because of careless or indifferent management that places little value on the health and safety of frontline employees.

McFarland Mental Health Center in central Illinois houses forensic patients, some of whom have committed serious crimes and are known to be violent. Facility management worries incessantly about safeguarding the rights of the patients but has shown no corresponding concern with protecting the rights of staff not to be beaten, battered or abused. When one of the patients recently attempted to strangle a staff member—who lost consciousness and had to be rushed to the hospital—she was made to return to work on that same unit with that same patient.

Just weeks later when a patient with a history of incarceration in state correctional facilities was admitted to McFarland to determine fitness to stand trial, he was placed in a room with access to materials that could readily be “weaponized.” And that’s just what he did—turning a metal door jamb into a small spear and the metal frame of his bed into a battering ram. When staff were called in to restrain the patient, he attacked them with those homemade weapons and two individuals had to be hospitalized.

AFSCME Local 2767 at McFarland had repeatedly pressed to have patients’ beds attached to the floor so they could not be dismantled and used as weapons—but management refused to make this change because they didn’t want the patients’ environment to seem too institutional—choosing instead to put the safety of employees at greater risk.

At Shapiro Developmental Center, a facility intended to serve individuals with severe developmental disabilities, management claims that it cannot limit the violent outbursts of an individual whose behavior has resulted in over 100 documented staff injuries. Those injuries include kicking a staff member so violently that she suffered permanent damage to her spine and is no longer able to work.

At Chester Mental Health Center an employee was choked nearly to death by a patient known to attack peers and staff. A co-worker saved the employee’s life, but he’s left with a torn disc and two bulging discs in his neck. He’s only 25 years old and may require complex neck surgery.

Assaults on employees in Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice facilities have been steadily rising—by some 50% in each department over a two-year period. Inmates are emboldened to attack staff because consequences are minimal, sometimes nonexistent. After a coordinated assault by youth at IYC St. Charles, a staff member required 17 sutures to repair a gaping injury to his skull. At Lawrence Correctional Center, several staff were injured so severely that they had to be off work for months. At Pontiac Correctional Center, new protocols for inmates with mental illness have greatly reduced security measures and resulted in a growing number of violent attacks on staff.

In all these instances, AFSCME staff and local leaders have fought back—demanding stronger measures to protect employees. The union has filed grievances, organized protests, held press conferences, taken legal action, and lobbied the state legislature.

Often we’ve had to challenge well-intentioned “advocates” who view injuries to staff as mere collateral damage in their quest to strengthen the rights of patients and inmates. And we’ve had to go toe-to-toe with employers who refuse to implement measures to improve employee safety.

When the departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice were unresponsive to repeated efforts by local unions, AFSCME Council 31 filed a class-action grievance that resulted in an arbitrator’s order that steps must be taken to better protect employees.

After the brutal assault on Pam Knight, AFSCME held a series of meetings with DCFS leadership that resulted in several reforms to strengthen protections for caseworkers.

At McFarland MHC, the local union planned a picket and press conference that elicited a rapid response from top leadership in IDHS, including changes in management personnel at the facility.

We know that having a strong union means better wages and benefits but being AFSCME Strong also means that the fight for safer workplaces continues daily all across our state. Our union is our voice to insist that we deserve safety at work.

There’s no doubt that many jobs in the public sector have an element of risk, but every effort should be made to minimize that risk. No employee should have to risk injury, even death, when preventive measures are possible. We’re not going to accept employer excuses, indifference or uninformed policy rationales—our lives are every bit as valuable as anyone else’s.

Dignity at work means not being subjected to unnecessary dangers. Dignity at work means we have a right to the safest possible working conditions. Dignity at work means that we’re going to keep on fighting until we have the protections we need and deserve.