Total Worker Health Coming to Oregon Department of Corrections

Winds of change are blowing to improve the health and safety of ODOC staff.  Last month with 70 MPH winds and rain blasting the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution Wellness Symposium in Pendleton, Oregon, Dr. Kerry Kuehl presented the occupational health and safety risks associated with corrections work.

Some of the important findings from the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center (OHWC) DOC funded study conducted from 2011-2014 include:

  • 1 out of 2 Correctional Officers (CO’s) have metabolic syndrome (combo of elevated BP and blood sugar, Central Obesity, Dyslipidemia, and Hypertriglyceridemia)
  • High stress related illness and absenteeism rates
  • Highest worker compensation claims of state workers
  • Nationally, corrections work associated with some of the highest PTSD and suicide related deaths

Leading the charge to change the course of these alarming stats are Oregon DOC Director Peters and Deputy Director Morrow.  Mr. Mitch Morrow is on a personal crusade to improve the health and safety of his DOC staff. Mr. Morrow – with 32 years with Oregon DOC, beginning as a correctional officer – knows too well the extreme demands of this work including the negative effects of hypervigilence (always being on guard with elevated cortisol, adrenaline, and high blood pressure). He says this work is taking a toll on his staff and it is time to address the premature mortality occurring 15 years earlier than U.S. adults.  Mr. Morrow opened by stating “we can no longer have a blind eye to these unacceptable health statistics” and is making health promotion and protection of his staff the number 1 priority in 2015.

Corrections Staff with Dr. Kuehl (far right).

Dr. Kuehl and his research team have now toured 7 of the 14 prisons in the state to better understand these occupational risks.  Working with all public safety sector workers, Dr. Kuehl sees corrections research being 20-30 years behind fire and police research, and believes it is essential to focus on this occupational group.

Correctional officers have a unique job of protecting the public from society’s most violent criminals, while at the same time being dedicated to the mission of rehabilitating these inmates for return and productivity to society. DOC staff lay their life on the line every day and bear the brunt of this stress-related occupation.

With a national effort underway from the National Institute of Justice initiated by the NIOSH Total Worker Health Centers, Dr. Kuehl is encouraged corrections work is now a high priority and will receive the necessary resources to study effective interventions on this high risk occupation.

Submitted by Kerry S Kuehl, MD DrPH MS
Professor of Medicine
Chief Division of Health Promotion & Sports Medicine
Director Human Performance Lab
Oregon Health & Science University

OHWC Correctional Officers Project
OccHealthSci Topic Page: Corrections