According to the American Nurses Association, 2017 is the “Year of the Healthy Nurse.” National Nurses Week is May 6–12; it’s an ideal time to thank the nurses who dedicate their lives to helping sick and injured patients recover. Keeping our nurses and other healthcare workers healthy isn’t always easy; they face a job that is demanding both physically and mentally. But nurses do their jobs because they care and want to help people in need.
It may surprise you to learn that, compared with other jobs, nurses and nursing assistants have one of the highest risks for suffering musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and injuries at work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses rank sixth in occupations at high risk for muscular strains and sprains, particularly of the back, neck and limbs. This unique injury risk applies not just to registered nurses but also to other nursing personnel including nurses’ aides, orderlies and attendants.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nurses and healthcare workers are one of the three occupations that suffer the most injuries requiring time away from work in the United States. These professional healthcare workers are at particular risk for MSDs that result from overexertion. For nurses, these injuries are often correlated with patient handling tasks, which include lifting, repositioning and transferring patients and are sometimes performed by the nurses themselves without the aid of motorized lifts. These difficult tasks are recognized as the primary cause for musculoskeletal disorders among our nation’s nurses, nurse aides, orderlies and attendants.
As workers’ compensation attorneys, we’ve represented many nurses who have suffered MSD injuries at work while performing their normal job responsibilities and patient-handling tasks. According to the Virginia Nurses Association, Virginia has more than 100,000 registered nurses, who are all vulnerable to back injuries from lifting and moving patients.
Why are nurses prone to such injuries? In a word, manual patient handling. Because of the higher number of obese or overweight patients, nurses are at increased risk when they try to move or reposition a patient, which happens on a regular basis. Some estimates put the amount of weight lifted by each nurse per shift as high as 3,600 pounds. As a result, injuries to the muscles, tendons and nerves of their lower back and limbs are often devastating and have the potential to end their careers. Many nurses live with chronic pain or reduced mobility, and if these injuries impact job performance, they could lose their jobs.
What can be done to increase nurse safety? Implementing comprehensive safe patient handling and mobility (SPHM) programs can reduce such workplace injuries by up to 95% and protect hospital workers from potentially career-ending injuries. These programs not only improve patient care and safety, they can also lower injury-related costs. There isn’t currently a federal law requiring safe patient handling practices by eliminating manual lifting, moving and repositioning of patients, though several have been initiated.
In a recent podcast, Pamela Cipriano, Ph.D., President of the American Nurses Association, addressed the high incidence of nurses injured at work. Dr. Cipriano has ties to Virginia: she has been a Research Associate Professor at the University of Virginia School of Nursing since 2010.
Dr. Cipriano cited some alarming statistics: between 11,000 and 12,000 registered nurses nationwide report work injuries each year while doing their jobs, but the number for nursing assistants is nearly double that at about 22,000 reported injuries. She also notes that not all injuries are reported.
“We recognize that nurses and nursing assistants suffer one of the highest rates of musculoskeletal injuries … so we have advocated to eliminate any kind of manual patient handling,” Dr. Cipriano stated. She goes on to explain that the ANA doesn’t want nurses to rely on old-fashioned body mechanics. For their own safety as well as for patient safety and dignity, the entire profession should adopt the use of assistive equipment to lift and reposition patients safely.
The ANA supports the Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act, introduced in the United States Congress on December 15, 2016. The bill would “establish a national occupational safety standard eliminating the manual lifting of patients to prevent injuries to RNs, other health care workers and patients.”
Dr. Cipriano went on to say that, “Implementing and sustaining a culture for safe patient handling is critical ‒ we don’t want anyone, either caregiver or patient, to get injured.”