May 21, 2024

An OEHS Approach to Correctional Facilities

By Kay Bechtold

Correctional facilities require a custom approach to maintain building health as well as a safe environment for employees, adults in custody, and the wider community, Daniel Farcas, PhD, CIH, CSP, CHMM, said this morning at AIHA Connect 2024. Such settings come with unique challenges, including the risk of violence and assault among incarcerated people and toward staff. Understaffing, overcrowding, and poor facility design are all factors that can exacerbate issues with violence in addition to contributing to other hazards, like the spread of infectious diseases. Employees can also be isolated, as many correctional facilities are located away from more populated areas, and they may have prolonged work hours. Other security risks can arise from the smuggling of contraband and attempts by adults in custody to emotionally manipulate or coerce employees to obtain contraband, services, or favors. Correctional officers are also at risk of musculoskeletal injuries, Farcas added. These injuries can occur when officers use force to manage individuals who are not cooperating or behaving aggressively. Also found in correctional facilities are hazards that may also be present at other institutions: for example, asbestos, mold, hazardous chemicals, and unsafe equipment.

“[We] have to recognize how to mitigate these hazards and make recommendations that are realistically attainable in these correctional settings,” Farcas stressed.

Many types of workers are employed in correctional facilities. In addition to correctional officers who oversee incarcerated individuals, workers at these facilities can include utilities technicians, information technology professionals, medical and social workers, and food management workers, said Farcas. He reminded conference attendees that adults in custody themselves also work at these facilities and are necessary for their effective operation.

Industrial hygienists and safety professionals are commonly contracted by correctional facilities from local jails to federal institutions to perform a variety of tasks. They may conduct hazard assessments, monitoring to evaluate exposures to pollutants or noise, employee training on safety procedures and the use of personal protective equipment, and emergency response planning to address incidents such as chemical spills or outbreaks of infectious disease. IHs and safety professionals may also help evaluate the environmental impact of correctional facilities as well as recommend safety procedures to protect incarcerated adults and staff from risks associated with materials, equipment, or industrial processes used in these settings.

Farcas advised professionals who are going to do work in correctional facilities to avoid staring at anyone because “you never know who you’re going to upset.”

“If you go, never ask anyone why they are in there,” he added.

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.

Read more coverage of AIHA Connect 2024.

For Further Reading

The Synergist: “Correctional Institutions and Human Health Risk” (December 2022).

SynergistNOW: “Health and Safety Challenges in Correctional Facilities” (April 2024).