April 23, 2024 / Abby Roberts

Health and Safety Challenges in Correctional Facilities

Image Credit: Getty Images / Oleksandr Filon

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics states that on Dec. 31, 2022, more than 1.2 million people were held in the nation's state and federal prisons. By May 2023, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that about 351,420 people were employed as correctional officers and jailers. These figures only provide the starting point for determining the number of people employed and held in custody in U.S. correctional institutions—populations that have unique health and safety needs.

"Even though correctional employees are immediately associated with overseeing incarcerated adults by the general population," said Daniel Farcas, PhD, CIH, CSP, CHMM, "correctional professionals also include utilities, technicians, information technology professionals, medical and social workers, food management personnel, and adults in custody who are workers." Contracted workers and visitors may be found in these environments as well. Correctional facilities may also employ or consult with occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professionals. In his own work, Farcas assists correctional facilities in identifying and addressing hazards through risk assessment, preparedness, planning, training, and security measures.

However, an OEHS professional may encounter hazards and exposures that are unfamiliar to them or combine in unfamiliar ways if they find work in this environment. "There are unique challenges in a prison environment," Farcas said, "such as the need to balance safety and security with the rights and dignity of the adults in custody."

Practicing OEHS in Correctional Facilities

Farcas explained that hazards in correctional facilities differ from other public or governmental institutions. The risk of assault and violence means that workers and others in correctional facilities must remain physically and mentally prepared to respond to life-threatening situations. When facilities confine large numbers of people within a limited area, there is risk for spreading infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus (MRSA). CDC reports that in 2021, the rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection was three times higher among people incarcerated in state and federal prisons than among the general U.S. population. Musculoskeletal injuries may occur when people in custody are restrained or shaken down. Unique chemical exposures may also be found in correctional environments—for example, workers and others may be exposed to oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, known to the wider population as pepper spray.

The psychologically taxing environment may increase risks for stress, anxiety, burnout, suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders. Another psychological risk factor is the possibility that people in custody may try to manipulate or coerce workers in the facility to obtain contraband items or services.

Furthermore, many correctional facilities are located in isolated areas, which complicates emergency preparedness and response planning. Correctional facilities may experience riots, hostage incidents, and terrorist threats, as well as fires, floods, and hazardous material incidents. Longer travel times may limit the ability of first responders to rapidly reach the correctional facility or people at the facility to quickly reach a hospital. According to the National Institute of Corrections' Guide to Preparing for and Responding to Prison Emergencies, correctional facilities are "responsible for the safety of large numbers of individuals who are usually locked up and cannot protect themselves in many emergency situations."

"You will find some hazards that are not found in general industrial hygiene work, that are more challenging, in correctional settings," Farcas said. "There are situations that, as an industrial hygienist, you may not be prepared to respond to—because you haven't been put in those situations."

Although an OEHS professional's training gives them tools for overcoming these challenges, he continued, the correctional environment "challenges your capacity for safety and health to the maximum."

Preparing OEHS Professionals

Farcas hopes to prepare OEHS professionals for work in correctional facilities through an educational session he'll host at AIHA Connect 2024 in May. This session, titled "Hazard Recognition and Assessment Within Correctional Facilities," will give participants practical guidance for addressing challenges that require approaches customized to these settings. For example, health and safety approaches must account for facilities' geographic isolation, the stress workers may be put under, and exposure to OC spray and other chemicals. "If you attend this session," Farcas said, "you'll know what to expect, and you'll better understand the environment and how safety is handled in a correctional facility."

This session will be particularly useful for OEHS professionals who are considering work or about to begin work in correctional facilities. These attendees will be able to "foresee what kind of career they can have and what kind of environment they are going to work in," Farcas said. "If you have any projects within correctional facilities, you'll learn what kind of measures you need to take to protect yourself, the employees in the institution, the adults in custody, and the general population."

Despite the challenging environment, Farcas explained that there are many work opportunities for OEHS professionals in correctional facilities "because you’re not just taking care of the adults in custody or employees. It's also a part, without doubt, of the wider community, the community that we all live in," he added. "So it's a part of public service. If you do your job well as a safety professional and industrial hygienist, you don't just protect the institution, you're actually protecting the entire society."

Daniel Farcas will present Session E6, "Hazard Recognition and Assessment Within Correctional Facilities," on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, from 8 to 9 a.m. Eastern time. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor at AIHA.


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