Public Citizen Report: Stronger Laws Would Protect Nurses From Back Injuries

June 24, 2015

Public Citizen Report: Stronger Laws Would Protect Nurses From Back Injuries

Most States Fail to Protect Health Care Workers From Occupational Injuries

Note: Updated on July 2 to clarify that data are available for only 8 of the 11 states that have passed safe patient handling laws.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Eleven states have enacted laws in the past decade to protect nurses from patient handling injuries. Of the eight states for which meaningful data are available, five have seen decreases ranging from 7 to 29 percent in musculoskeletal injuries requiring days away from work since their laws took effect.

Minnesota, Missouri and Texas have the strongest patient handling laws, Public Citizen found. (Missouri and Texas come closest to mandating that institutions ban manual heavy lifting.) Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that these states saw the steepest reductions (18.2 percent between 2007 and 2013, 17.1 percent between 2011 and 2013, and 29.2 percent between 2005 and 2013 respectively) in reported musculoskeletal disorders in health care workers after enacting their laws. Although the data are limited, they indicate that stronger laws can help cut down on injuries.

Musculoskeletal disorders, which often are caused by patient handling, are the leading cause of injuries for nursing assistants, accounting for more than half of all injuries to nursing assistants in 2013. That is nearly six times higher than the national average across all occupations for this type of injury.

California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington have safe patient handling laws, but they are woefully inadequate; 39 states and the District of Columbia have no patient handling statutes on the books to protect health care workers. Neither Congress, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or the states are doing an adequate job of protecting the caregivers we rely on to care for us when we are ill, injured or at the end of our lives, Public Citizen found.

“These injuries carry an enormous price,” said Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and co-author of the report. “Back injuries can bring an early end to careers in health care and leave victims suffering from lifelong pain with severely restricted mobility.”

A model law to protect these workers would reduce or eliminate heavy manual lifting in health care facilities and would require new construction to incorporate state-of-the-art ergonomic designs. Such a law also would require institutions to keep accurate counts of musculoskeletal disorders sustained on the job, analyze the root causes of these injuries and submit annual reports to regulatory agencies on the number of musculoskeletal disorders experienced by employees.

“The more prescriptive and ambitious laws, such as those passed by Texas and Missouri, have achieved some of the best results in terms of reported injuries,” said Wrightson. “This provides cause for optimism that legislation is capable of meaningfully reducing injuries suffered by caregivers.”

This report is the third in a five-part series on safe patient handling.

Read the report (PDF).

###