For years, the clinical psychologist safeguarded the documents by storing them in a secure file room in three metal cabinets that were locked at all times. However, with a client base of 700 to 800 patients a year, the documents began to take over the office. The cabinets filled to capacity and, even after three more were purchased, the clinic had resorted to filing patient reports and other sensitive records in cardboard boxes. The center never had a security breach that jeopardized a client's privacy, but by the mid-1990s it was painfully clear that Oleson needed a way to dispose of outdated files safely to make room in his secure cabinets.
Destroying the documents was not as easy as it sounds, though. Under state law, treatment centers like Oleson's must maintain patient records for at least seven years. The documents are considered confidential and cannot be released to anyone without the patient's permission. When they finally are discarded, the documents must be destroyed first to ensure that the client's privacy is protected.
"I can't just throw them in the trash," says Oleson, whose files document domestic abuse cases, drug addictions, people with sexual problems, and other cases. "These records have to be completely destroyed. It's a lawsuit waiting to happen if something like this ever got into the public."
Oleson thought he solved his problem two years ago when he purchased an industrial shredder. The machine, which cost about $100, could finely shred eight to ten papers at a time. The documents could then be bagged and discarded with the rest of the clinic's trash. But the shredder proved to be too slow and inefficient. Shortly after Oleson bought the machine, for example, it took an office secretary two full work days to destroy two boxes of files, each containing between 75 and 100 documents.
Although Oleson kept the shredder for destroying papers like written phone messages from clients, the clinic couldn't afford to tie up its two secretaries for document destruction. "It was an all-day exercise," Oleson says. "It cost me $64 [a day] in labor cost to shred."
On a whim, Oleson decided earlier this year to call the local trash-to-energy plant to ask if the facility had a program for burning sensitive documents. To his surprise, Oleson found that the Wasatch Energy Systems incinerator in Layton, Utah, had instituted such a program several years ago. Since the facility was located just twelve miles from his Ogden clinic, Oleson decided to try it.
After sorting through the files to identify all records that dated back more than seven years, Oleson packed his truck with nearly 8,000 documents weighing between 500 and 600 pounds. On his way home from work, Oleson dropped by the burn plant and watched as the documents were loaded onto a platform, dropped into the incinerator, and burned into ash - all at a cost of about $20.
Wasatch Energy Systems is a nonprofit, public waste-to-energy facility that is owned and operated by seventeen cities and two counties in northern Utah. Completed in 1987, the facility serves nearly 200,000 residents, burning municipal waste in incinerators that reach temperatures of between 1,800 and 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Customers who need sensitive documents burned pay on a sliding scale, with prices ranging from $82 a ton to $400 a ton, depending on the amount of paper to be burned and any special handling needs of the client. Customers are responsible for transporting the sensitive documents to the plant themselves, with most corporations hiring special security details to accompany the waste to the plant.
Once the trash has arrived at the plant, the documents are dumped on a scale and weighed. A CCTV surveillance system and two plant employees monitor the drop and the weighing process to ensure that the documents are not tampered with prior to burning. A crane then lifts the documents from the scale and drops them in a hopper that leads into an incinerator.
Plant employees check afterward to ensure that they have all been thoroughly burned. In the rare instance when documents have not been completely destroyed, they are placed in the incinerator again. Customers, who are permitted to watch the entire process on the surveillance system, are issued a "certificate of destruction" after the documents have been burned.
Oleson says that he was comfortable with the operation and plans to take documents to the burn plant once a year.
(For more information: John Crofts, marketing communications manager, Wasatch Energy Systems, Layton, Utah, 801/771-3032; fax: 801/771-8615. Or contact your local trash-to-energy operation to see whether it offers a similar service.)
- By John F. Kirch, associate editor
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|Title Annotation:||document security of a mental health and substance abuse treatment center owned by Paul Oleson in Ogden, Utah|
|Author:||Kirch, John F.|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1998|
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