• OSHA Focuses on Risks to Health Care Workers Injured by Patient Handling
  • July 24, 2013
  • Law Firm: Holland & Hart LLP - Greenwood Village Office
  • Health care workers suffer on-the-job injuries at high rates, due in large part to overexertion related to manual patient handling. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as sprains, strains, soft tissue and back injuries, are suffered by nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants at a rate that is more than seven times the average for all industries - higher than the rate for construction workers and freight, stock and material movers.

    The most often reported nature of these injuries is sprains and strains affecting the shoulders and low back. These injuries often are associated with transferring and repositioning patients and working in awkward positions. Typically, this includes transferring patients from toilet to chair, from chair to bed, from bathtub to chair, repositioning from side to side in bed, lifting a patient in bed, repositioning a patient in chair or making a bed with a patient in it. The problems associated with lifting patients are heightened by the increasing weight of patients due to higher incidents of obesity in the U.S. as well as the increasing number of older individuals who need assistance with their daily activities. Areas considered to be high-risk include bathing rooms, extended care wings and diagnostic units, such as radiology, orthopedics and the emergency department.

    High Employer Costs Due to Health Care Worker Injuries

    According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), private industry reported 40,030 occupational MDS cases in 2010 due to working with a patient or resident of a health care facility. In addition, OSHA reports that as many as 20% of nurses who leave direct patient care positions do so because of risks associated with the work. Employers of health care workers face high costs as a result of occupational MSDs, including not only medical expenses, worker's compensation and disability compensation, but also the increased costs associated with absenteeism, lower productivity and turnover.

    OSHA Campaign to Raise Awareness of Safe Patient Handling for Health Care Workers

    Last week, OSHA announced a new campaign to increase awareness of the hazards that cause MSDs among health care workers. In its materials, OSHA focused on "safe patient handling" programs that OSHA believes may help prevent injuries. OSHA has suggested a zero-lift program, which minimizes direct patient lifting by using special lifting equipment and transfer tools. Other options recommended by OSHA include a thorough assessment of high risk units or areas, investment in technology and equipment, appropriate planning for patient handling and movement, training for staff and periodic review of the program and evaluation processes. Additional information on OSHA's Safe Patient Handling initiative may be found on its website.

    Will Increased Enforcement Follow?

    The feasibility of measures to reduce injuries associated with manual patient handling will be robustly debated. However, make no mistake, with OSHA's increased focus on this issue, health care employers should anticipate a corresponding increased risk of an inspector visit. An effective assessment of risks, combined with improved employee training, are critical first steps to helping employers get ready for this increased scrutiny and potential regulatory exposure.