Nurses are at a higher risk of suffering preventable work-related injuries than many other occupations. Over half of the injuries nurses experience are musculoskeletal disorders, many of which could have been avoided if hospitals invested in the proper equipment.
Nursing assistants were the third-most injured professionals in 2015 with over 37,000 reported cases, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered nurses also presented a high number of cases, with more than 25,000 being hurt on the job.
If taken as a whole, then these healthcare professionals experienced the most work-related injuries in 2015, beating out all other professions.Few professions are more dangerous, and those that are usually involve hard labor.
More than 19,360 nursing assistants experienced musculoskeletal injuries in 2015. These are mainly caused by helping lift and move patients. A nurse can move a patient as many as 20 times per shift, significantly raising the risk of injuries.
The severity of the injuries differ. The longer a nurse works, the more repetitive strain is placed on the body. It’s not uncommon for a nurse who has been working for two decades to end up with debilitating injuries.
Factors Contributing to Musculoskeletal Injuries
A number of factors contribute to nurses suffering musculoskeletal injuries at work, but heavier patients and outdated techniques tend to top the list.
The population has become heavier, with an increasing number of patients having a much higher body mass index than a few decades ago. In 2014, approximately 70 percent of the US adult population was overweight or obese, with over 37 percent being obese and extremely obese. In 1990, the obesity rate was just over 11 percent. Moving and lifting patients can be dangerous, but the risk of injury rises with the weight of the patient.
Additionally, nursing schools still teach that good body mechanics, like keeping one’s back straight and bending the knees, will help reduce the likelihood of an injury. Experts from the Ohio State University’s Spine Research Institute, however, have stated that manually lifting patients is simply not safe. Even the best body mechanics are often unable to prevent back injuries because of the massive strain placed on the spine.
Furthermore, the body mechanics that are currently taught in nursing schools assume that the person doing the lifting is standing right in front of the weight they have to lift. However, nurses usually have to stand by the edge of the bed and then lean over to reach the patient, making it difficult to employ the mechanics they have been taught.
Hospitals Are Ignoring the Problem
While hospitals have done a lot to improve the well-being of their staff, including offering healthier food choices and providing break rooms that are more relaxing to prevent fatigue, little focus has been on safe-lifting programs.
A small number of hospitals have implemented a safe patient handling approach, which led to a reduction in injuries of up to 80 percent. This approach involves using equipment similar to the motorized hoists in factories used to move heavy items. These hospitals also provide more intensive training on using the equipment and, in conjunction, employing proper body mechanics.
Suzanne Gordon, author of Nursing Against the Odds, stated that many hospital administrators don’t value nurses. They see nurses as disposable, second-class citizens, preferring to focus on other priorities than implementing programs to reduce work-related injuries.
Healthcare experts say that despite being aware of the risks nurses face, most hospitals haven’t taken sufficient action to protect their staff from the injuries caused by lifting and moving patients.
Some hospitals claim to have taken steps towards resolving this issue, but the reality is often far from what’s written on paper. They do the bare minimum, and some nurses attest that when they need the equipment or the support of a lift team, they aren’t available.
According to NPR, one hospital had such serious issues that the nursing staff banded together and filed a complaint with the state, claiming the facility was in violation of the law. The law in question has been implemented in a number of states and requires health care facilities to take all the measures necessary to protect nurses from getting injured while moving and lifting patients.
After an investigation, the judge agreed with the staff and gave the hospital 90 days to fix the issues. However, officials representing the facility treated the judge’s findings and decree as mere technicalities.
Over the long-term, investing in a safe patient handling program can only benefit healthcare facilities. Many nurses are forced to retire early because of their injuries, which increases staff costs and lowers productivity while new nurses are learning the job.