Healthcare News & Insights

No. 1 threat to your nurses: Injuries from lifting patients

skd239635sdcMuch has been said about making hospitals healthier for staff. And facilities have made strides in several areas, including providing staff with healthier food and more relaxing break rooms to fight fatigue and burnout. But hospitals need to do more about addressing another significant hazard to nurses’ health and wellbeing: workplace injuries from lifting patients.

A series on NPR, Injured Nurses, attempts to shine some light on the issue.

According to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by NPR, nurses experience more than 35,000 back and musculoskeletal injuries on the job that are significant enough to prevent them from working each year.

This makes nursing one of the fields where workers are most likely to be injured. In fact, nurses face a greater risk of injury than factory workers, construction workers and other jobs involving nothing but physical labor.

Why technique doesn’t matter

Even if lifting is done correctly, the process places a great deal of strain on nurses’ bodies, as discussed in the NPR series. Many nurses are taught that safe lifting begins with the use of proper body mechanics, keeping the back straight and bending at the knees and hips.

But this process isn’t the be-all, end all when it comes to preventing lift-related injuries. Lifting and moving patients manually still places a great deal of pressure on the spine, regardless of the technique used.

In fact, experts from the Spine Research Institute at Ohio State University have extensively studied how lifting patients can hurt nurses, and they found that the lifting process itself contains several inherent dangers that lead to injury, including:

  • Distance. It’s much easier to lift something if it’s very close to your body. But nursing staff have to stand at the side of the bed to lift a patient. They can’t get much closer.
  • Bending. Although nurses are bending with their knees, any bending movement changes how the body distributes weight when lifting. The majority of the force goes from bones along the spine directly to disks in the back, straining them.
  • Repetition. Each time a nurse must lift and move a patient, there’s a risk of developing small tears in plates designed to send nutrients to disks in the back. Over time, these tears grow scar tissue, and that stops the flow of nutrients. The result is that disks deteriorate faster, which makes injury more likely whenever a nurse lifts a patient.

These circumstances are made worse by the fact the average patient’s much larger than they were back when most facilities created their safe lifting protocols. There was still a risk of injury when patients weighed less, but now it’s made worse since nursing staff are regularly moving bigger patients.

Drawbacks to team lifting

As a safety precaution, many hospitals require a team of nursing staff to lift and transport patients, saying that it’s better to distribute a patient’s weight among multiple staffers instead of one or two. But there are still problems with this approach.

For one, in many busy hospitals, there simply aren’t enough staff members available to mobilize a lift team whenever a patient needs assistance. And sometimes, the need to move a patient can mean the difference between life and death, so there’s no time to wait.

Plus, using a team to lift and move patients still carries inherent risks. There’s still chance of compression on disks in the back – this doesn’t go away with the use of team lifting.

And since each member of a team has different physical strength and may bear a patient’s weight differently, the bodies of everyone else assisting can overcompensate to account for the difference. This can cause force to be distributed unevenly on the areas of the body that take up the slack, which means injury is still possible.

Safest bet

In response to the high risk of on-the-job injury for hospital workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a website hospitals can reference to ensure their lifting practices are safe. The site has several toolkits and resources for hospitals to develop patient handling programs that boost safety for nursing staff.

One key component to safe lifting that every hospital should have: Mechanical lift-assistance equipment. This is the only way to truly prevent nursing staff from being injured.

Though it’s expensive to outfit your hospital with enough equipment to handle patient lifting in every unit and department, it’s worth the cost. Nursing workers who experience enough injuries on the job eventually can’t work anymore – and then they file costly workers’ compensation suits against their hospital employers.

Plus, the more nurses you have who are missing work due to injuries, the harder it is for your facility to adequately staff each shift, making it harder to provide high-quality care to patients – and indirectly leading to burnout among your remaining nursing staff.

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