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Senators inspect safety at state hospital


Former Hawaii State Hospital worker Emelinda Yarte said there should have been more security guards working when she was thrown against a wall and hit in the head helping colleagues who were attacked by a patient.

Yarte described her experience to senators on a special investigative committee in a hearing Wednesday at the Hawaii Legislature.

Lawmakers examined how the hospital assigns staff and handles the safety of those who work with psychiatric patients.

Yarte and her colleagues were attacked by a patient who was a mixed martial arts fighter in a part of the hospital that was understaffed at the time, she said. A security camera in the area was broken, and normally there are three technicians in the area to help with security, she said.

Yarte was later reprimanded for intervening, but any of her colleagues would have done the same for her, she said.

"There was no other staff to help," Yarte said. "All I could see was blood."

The hospital has a hard time staffing certain units, especially the one where new patients are taken, said Debbie Ono, a clerk who schedules workers. "We need to fill those spots, because it’s dangerous to be short" of staff, Ono said.

As a result, some employees end up working 16-hour shifts five days in a row, a situation they try to avoid, Ono said. Staffing problems are especially bad on weekends, when sometimes there are not enough workers to fill in for the people who call in sick, she said.

"The reason our overtime is so great is that the people hired do not want to work," Ono said.

Ono said she suspects some workers are taking advantage of the system by coordinating with colleagues to have one call in sick and the other work the shift to get overtime pay, she said.

State figures showed more than 1,200 attacks at the hospital between 2006 and 2013, although hospital administrators have said the number is misleading because some nonviolent incidents are classified as assaults.

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