The classic line of the friendly white-capped nurse of hospital lore is “This won’t hurt a bit.” For the real life nurses caring for patients every day, however, their job is often a world of pain.
Nurses carry the weight of others’ pain 24-7—often literally, lifting and shifting immobile patients with minimal assistance. The burden takes a hidden toll, as nurses, orderlies, nursing assistants, and other front-line health workers experience some of the highest rates of muscoskeletal disorders of any sector. Registered nurses face more than 50 percent the rate of musculoskeletal injury of the general workforce; nursing assistants more than six times the rate.
The government is recognizing that injured healthcare workers cost the system on both ends, requiring expensive treatment for avoidable injury and undermining the care infrastructure by debilitating staff or pushing people out of the job. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now taking steps toward protecting them against both injury and exploitation.
Yet the biggest safety challenge may be simply marshalling the political will to implement proven methods of protecting workers with mechanical assistance, appropriate staffing, and institutional accountability. Following state-level efforts in California, Texas, New York, and other states, OSHA has recently rolled out guidelines and safety memoranda for safe patient handling and other injury-prevention methods. Regulators are urging hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities to invest in equipment like mechanical lifts and to establish protocols for moving patients.
For example, setting up “lift teams” at a hospital unit could provide specialized handling services alongside core nursing staff as they carry out principal care duties. At one facility presented as a case study, Tampa General Hospital in Florida, lift teams “contributed to a 65 percent decrease in patient handling injuries, a 90 percent reduction in lost workdays, and a 92 percent reduction in workers’ compensation costs per dollar of payroll. These benefits far outweigh the costs of equipment, team member salaries, and training.”
An accompanying OSHA memorandum directs healthcare facilities, including nursing homes and inpatient hospitals, to establish programs to safeguard healthcare staff and monitor programs for identifying safety hazards, setting up joint decision-making “to lift, transfer, or reposition patients/residents,” and implementing mechanical aides and training.