Department of Corrections pushed bill to remove OSHA protections from workers

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 9:50 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - After being warned about potential dangers in its facilities, Iowa’s Department of Corrections tried to push legislation that would stop inspections from happening inside its prisons.

The department proposed a bill this legislative session to increase the threshold for an Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection to occur when an attack happened inside a prison. The bill, which was eventually pulled by the department, would require OSHA to have another reason to investigate a prison rather than just an attack inside the prison.

An attack is what triggered an inspection of the Anamosa State Penitentiary. In that inspection, Iowa OSHA warned the prison did not have a reliable way to contact other employees for help during an emergency. And said the prison did not having enough staff members to respond in an emergency. The state agency fined the department around $20,000. The department is appealing the citation.

About eight months later, two inmates killed two staff members.

Danny Homan, who is the president of AFSCME Council 61, said the bill shows how little the department thinks about its employees.

“Why should the department of corrections say we don’t want to be covered [by OSHA],” Homan said. “Well the only thing my mind comes up with, is that they don’t want to provide people with a safe work environment.”

According to a memo sent to lawmakers, the Department of Corrections said the legislation was needed because it couldn’t prevent all attacks from inmates and cited three investigations at three different facilities in a two-week period. Each was related to a staff assault. One of those appears to resemble a complaint at The Iowa Medical and Classification Center.

“In prisons, it’s not a matter of if an inmate will attack a staff member, but when,” the complaint said.

The memo also said the unpredictable behavior of inmates simply cannot be identified as a recognized hazard and every employee of the department understand the risks associated with their job.

“One state entity using situations that are virtually impossible to prevent in order to find another agency is a poor use of the taxpayer’s resources,” the memo said. “Ironically the fines that are imposed as a result of these attacks on departmental staff only make it more difficult to adequately staff our facilities due to diminished resources.”

Cord Overton, who is a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said he pulled the bill because the department wanted to finish the appeal process before proposing new legislation.

“I pre-filed this proposed legislation and legislative memo in order to comply with LSA filing deadlines,” Overton said. “However, the department decided to withdraw the proposed bill until the outcome of the pending litigation surrounding the contested I-OSHA citations.”

That would be finished around June 2021. The department believes the investigation from OSHA is flawed because the conditions it cites were not tested by the inspectors and prisons can’t comply with some of the recommendations.

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