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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Jackson Park Hospital Nurses Say Behavioral Health Unit Isn’t Safe For Them, And Renovations Made It Worse

In a statement, hospital officials said the state health department and independent accreditors approved renovations made to the unit after a 2017 fire.

Nurse Essie Coleman speaks at Tuesday's press conference outside Jackson Park Hospital. Coleman and other nurses allege unsafe working conditions in the hospital's behavioral medicine unit.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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SOUTH SHORE — Nurses in Jackson Park Hospital’s behavioral health unit protested their working conditions Tuesday afternoon, calling for the restoration of barriers at their stations and other safety improvements.

The nurses allege the hospital failed to replace plexiglass barriers between patient areas and nurses’ stations after a 2017 fire required renovations to the fourth floor.

“There’s no physical barrier to prevent people from jumping over,” said nurse Essie Coleman. “Chairs and furniture are not secured and [patients] can use them as weapons, and reception and work areas are not designed to prevent unauthorized entry.”

In a statement, hospital officials said the Illinois Department of Public Health and independent accreditors approved the unit for occupancy before it reopened last fall.

The renovations were “found to meet the applicable codes,” the statement reads.

Jackson Park Hospital received a notice on Jan. 15 that a complaint was filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On Jan. 28, officials received a letter from OSHA Chicago South Area Director Kathy Webb saying the complaint had been closed.

Hospital officials said they are “taking the concern of our staff regarding their safety seriously.”

Since post-fire renovations were completed and the unit moved back onto the fourth floor, nurses said management has ignored their calls to improve safety.

“Even before rebuilding, it wasn’t very safe to begin with,” Coleman said. “Jackson Park Hospital rebuilt the unit so that it’s even more unsafe for workers than it had been before.”

The nurses aren’t only concerned about their own safety; doctors and patients are at risk, too, Coleman said. There have been numerous incidents of violence against behavioral medicine staff, she said.

Without barriers, patients may overhear conversations in the nurses’ stations, leading to confusion and anger, said nurse Elsie Melvin.

She recalled one instance where she and a doctor discussed potential methadone treatments for a patient. The patient became irate, insisting he or she didn’t do drugs and had no need for methadone.

Patients have also heard nurses discussing other patients’ treatment with doctors and spread rumors around the unit like, “I heard the doctor talking about you,” Melvin said.

Beyond replacing the barriers, nurses called for furniture in the unit to be bolted down so they cannot be used as weapons. They also said door locks must be installed in nurses’ work areas so patients can’t get in.

So far, hospital management has ignored the nurses’ demands in petitions and in-person meetings, said Marti Smith, the Midwest director for National Nurses United.

“It wasn’t until we began to talk about going public with this that they met with us,” Smith said. “Then when they met with us, they completely stiff-armed us and refused to discuss the issue in any meaningful way.”

The OSHA complaint filed in January achieved little, Smith said. She alleged investigators did not inspect the site before “taking the hospital’s word” and closing the complaint.

The nurses will continue to escalate the situation until they get the safety improvements they’re calling for, said Jennifer Harris-Goldsmith, chair of the nurses’ Professional Practice Committee.

“We’re unsafe, the patients are unsafe; something has to change,” Harris-Goldsmith said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) was scheduled to appear in support of the nurses but canceled at the last minute, according to Smith. Sawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

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