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Public Citizen Report: Technology and Smart Policies Offer Hope of Reducing Injuries to Nurses

June 16, 2015

Public Citizen Report: Technology and Smart Policies Offer Hope of Reducing Injuries to Nurses

But Most Hospitals Have Not Implemented Comprehensive Safe-Patient Handling Programs, Experts Say

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new Public Citizen report (PDF), “Taking the Burden Off Their Backs,” outlines a number of recommended technologies and policies to reduce injuries to nurses and other caregivers.

This report is the second in a five-part series, “Nursing: A Profession in Peril,” exploring the problem of injuries sustained by caregivers when they lift and reposition patients. Health care workers suffer more injuries – requiring time away from work – than those of any profession, according to the federal government, and many of these injuries result from handling patients.

Historically, experts assumed that good body mechanics would prevent caregivers from suffering injuries from lifting patients. But in recent decades, experts such as those at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have abandoned that premise while steadily lowering their estimates on how much weight workers can safely lift.

The American Nursing Association has flatly stated that “manual patient handling is unsafe and is directly responsible for musculoskeletal disorders suffered by nurses.” Yet, as the first report (PDF) in this Public Citizen series showed, nurses who are not able to fulfill onerous lifting expectations can be at risk of losing their jobs even if their inability to lift stems from injuries suffered at work.

Public Citizen’s latest report briefly describes several devices that assist in lifting, transferring and repositioning patients. These range from powered ceiling mounted or floor-based devices that are capable of elevating a patient’s entire body, to simpler solutions, such as reduced-friction sheets that enable turning or laterally transferring a patient much more easily than via conventional means.

Even if patient handling equipment is available, experts say that successful patient handling programs rely on numerous management-directed factors to succeed. Public Citizen’s report outlines several of these, including the need for written policies and committees governing patient handling practices, methods for employees to report concerns or incidents without fear of retribution, reliable systems to measure incidents and injuries, and the existence of policies that align physical stress demands on employees with their capacities.

Three experts consulted for this report estimated that the percentage of hospitals with comprehensive safe-patient handling programs is between 3 and 25 percent.

A health safety expert for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees told Public Citizen that she conducted three workshops for nurses earlier this year and found that about one-third of nurses reported having access to little or no modern patient handling technology.

When properly implemented, safe-patient handling programs work. For example, the New York State Department of Health Veterans Home at Batavia, N.Y, reports that it saw a reduction from having an average of nine full-time equivalent employees out of work per day due to patient handling injuries to just 0.5 employees after instituting a program that minimized manual lifting.

“It’s unconscionable that so many caregivers on the front lines are relegated to using archaic technology to perform their jobs,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report. “Hospitals should provide the necessary equipment and management support to ensure that caregivers are spared lifting requirements that jeopardize their health.”