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The Health Care Industry’s Castoffs

Nurses Injured at Work Often Find Themselves Out of Work and Suffering From Chronic Pain

By Taylor Lincoln

View Full Report as PDF


Nurses and other bedside caregivers tend to the most basic needs of patients too ill or elderly to take care of themselves. These caregivers command nowhere near the prestige or salaries of the physicians with whom they work. Yet, nurses exert much of the physical labor that goes on in hospitals, such as turning, lifting and transferring patients.

In raw numbers, more health care and social assistance workers miss work due to injury than do workers in any other profession. Public Citizen reported in detail on this shocking fact in 2013. Still, our report left unanswered a key question: how serious are these injuries? Do the musculoskeletal injuries suffered by nurses and other caregivers amount to nagging inconveniences that occasionally warrant a day off of work? Or do they truncatecareers and impinge on caregivers’ abilities to carry out normal lives?

This brief report, the first in a five-part series on the problem of injuries to health care workers, will not answer that question conclusively. But the examples outlined in this report include disturbingly similar themes.

Whether caused by freak occurrence, accumulation of physical strain over a career’s worthof wear and tear, or both, the nurses profiled here recount suffering injuries at work from which they have never recovered, and likely never will. These injuries left them with chronic pain, reduced mobility and related problems.

One might expect injured nurses to be assigned less physically strenuous work while recuperating from an injury. In some cases, nurses interviewed for this report said that this was the case for them. But other nurses recounted being forced to burn through their vacation and sick time – or simply having to take unpaid time off – when their injuries prevented them from meeting the onerous lifting demands of their normal job.

In some cases, once their banked time and federal protections were exhausted, the caregivers received notice in the mail that they had been fired, sometimes with a recommendation that they should apply to return to work if they recovered from their injury.

Three nurses profiled in this piece who lost their jobs once worked for the same institution, Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. Public Citizen summarized the facts reported by these nurses to a Mercy spokeswoman, submitted several questions via e-mail to Mercy, invited Mercy the opportunity to speak generally on its policies regarding injured workers, and offered to print the hospital’s answers verbatim in this report’s appendix. Mercy declined to provide a substantive response.

The caregivers profiled here also recount battles with workers’ compensation systems toreceive the tests and procedures needed to diagnose their conditions; often requiring surgery; and experiencing chronic, seemingly incurable pain. Several nurses reported severe bouts with depression. Many lamented the side effects of medications they were prescribed to cope with their conditions.

To varying degrees, these employees were able to recoup some lost wages through workers’compensation, but all reported receiving diminished income compared to what they would have gotten had they not been injured.

In most cases, their hard work has now given way to difficult retirements.