Few think of health care as one of the nation's most hazardous professions, but there you have it: nurses, nursing home attendants, and other health care workers are among the nation's most frequently injured work population, suffering from a high incidence of musculoskeletal injuries. Patient care calls for frequent lifting and moving, and this wreaks havoc with the back and shoulders. It's estimated that as many as 12 to 18% of all nurses stop practicing due to chronic back pain. The nursing shortage means that many health care workers have to do more with less, increasing the likelihood of injury; ironically, these injuries may be a primary culprit in exacerbating the nursing shortage.
Not to mention the hazards to the patient. When you are at your most vulnerable, do you really want a single nurse to be heaving you about? Bill Cosby used to have a stand-up routine about how you never wanted to hear a doctor say "oops." Similarly, When you are taking your first steps after major surgery, you don't really want the nurse who is helping you to say "ouch" - a helper who is writhing in pain may not be in your best interests.
Legislators in Washington - prompted by the Washington State Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 141 and Service Employees International Union 1199NW - just passed a Safe Patient Handling law that requires hospitals to provide mechanical lift equipment for the safe lifting and movement of patients. According to Occupational Hazards:
"On a timeline between Feb. 1, 2007, and Jan. 30, 2010, Washington hospitals must take measures including implementation of a safe patient handling policy and acquisition of their choice of either one readily available lift per acute-care unit on the same floor, one lift for every 10 acute-care inpatient beds or lift equipment for use by specially trained lift teams."
In August, we reported on Texas legislation that required nursing homes and hospitals to implement safe patient handling and movement programs. Most importantly, both laws have provisions that protect health care workers from reprisals should they refuse to perform patient handling that they deem potentially harmful to themselves or their patients.