Fatal falls in the construction industry and manufacturing injuries due to falling objects can cause dramatic on-the-job injuries that grab headlines and incite safety campaigns and stricter regulations.
But one type of workplace-related injury is so chronic in one industry that it has gone almost unnoticed – and unregulated.
According to a new report from Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy association, health care workers suffer more injuries and illnesses on the job each year than those in any other industry, and the most common healthcare-related injuries are musculoskeletal – due to “overexertion,” repetitive movements and manually lifting and moving patients. Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants in particular suffer the highest rate of back injuries than any other segment of workers in any field.
Part of the problem, according to the report, is that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently lacks a specific standard for ergonomic safety. That means that a workplace with unsafe ergonomic conditions can only be cited under the “general duty clause,” which states that an employer must provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” These “general” citations require a high evidentiary threshold, and the organization found that only seven citations regarding ergonomics have been issued to nursing homes over the past two fiscal years.
Without a proper standard to cite, it’s no surprise that, despite the prevalence of injuries in the field, and although health care workers outnumber construction workers more than two to one, OSHA conducts 20 times as many inspections at construction sites as health care facilities.
There’s evidence that instituting ergonomic laws could significantly reduce the number of injuries among health care employees. Ten states have instituted “safe patient handling” laws, requiring health care employers to provide “mechanical lifting and transfer devices” that alleviate the need for workers to manually lift or reposition patients. In Washington, the number of injuries due to ergonomic stressors was cut nearly in half after the law was implemented. In Maryland, the number dropped by 75 percent.
Because of this, Public Citizen and other advocacy groups are urging OSHA and Congress to pass similar nation-wide legislation that would also increase OSHA’s funding for conducting inspections at health care facilities.
In addition to protecting the health of patient care providers, addressing this issue could, in turn, protect the health of all Americans. In a press release issued by Public Citizen, Suzy Harrington, director of the American Nurses Association’s Department for Health, Safety and Wellness, pointed out that musculoskeletal injuries are a primary reason that health care workers leave direct patient care, and often positions that are currently facing a shortage of qualified applicants.