Report: WI nurses at heightened risk for workplace back injuries

Lifting patients may put nurses at a high risk for musculoskeletal injuries, even when nurses use the best practices that hospitals recommend.

Nurses in Wauwatosa often work grueling hours and experience unusual job-related risks, such as exposure to diseases. Surprisingly, though, these issues may not be the most significant health risks that many nurses face. Research indicates that nurses are highly likely to suffer work-related back injuries and other musculoskeletal problems. Sadly, the protocols currently in place at many hospitals may not adequately mitigate this risk.

Occupational injuries not uncommon

In 2012, The New York Times reported that nursing ranks as one of the worst occupations for on-the-job injuries. Back injuries are especially prevalent. According to past research, low back pain affects about half of nursing professionals every year.

The scope of this problem has not improved since that report. Earlier this month, National Public Radio reported the following troubling statistics on nursing injuries:

  • Each year, nursing employees suffer 35,000 back injuries serious enough to result in time missed from work.
  • Nursing assistants have the greatest risk of injury. They suffer more injuries than professionals in any other occupation, including truckers, workers in warehouses, retail clerks and registered nurses.
  • The overall musculoskeletal injury rate is three times greater among orderlies and nursing assistants than it is among construction workers.

Alarmingly, new research suggests that these injuries don't occur because of poor practices or carelessness on the part of nurses. Instead, the everyday task of moving and lifting patients puts nurses at risk. Unfortunately, hospital policies often fail to mitigate this risk.

Unsafe best practices

According to NPR, research shows that even using best practices, nurses cannot safely lift patients. This is due to simple mechanics. When lifting a patient from bed, nurses must exert more force because they are standing relatively far from the patient. When nurses must lift patients while bending over, rather than standing upright, they subject their spinal disks to unnaturally strong forces.

Many hospitals use team lifts to safely lift patients, but this maneuver still leaves room for injury. NPR explains that group lifting can exert a shear force on the spine. In other words, in addition to the downward compression resulting from the patient's weight, the spine experiences a sideways pressure. The spine is much more vulnerable to shear forces than compression. Thus, team lifts can create an even greater risk of injury.

Experts state that nurses can only safely lift patients with the help of machinery or other equipment. Tellingly, some Florida and VA hospitals that use lifting equipment have seen nurse lifting injuries fall by up to 80 percent. Unfortunately, many hospitals still teach nurses that lifts can be safely performed with good body mechanics or teamwork. This means that many nurses may be at risk for injury.

Claiming occupational injuries

Wisconsin nurses who suffer acute or repetitive stress injuries at work may be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Nurses may be able to secure compensation for medical expenses and lost wages. Depending on the severity of the injury, permanent disability benefits or vocational rehabilitation may also be available.

Wisconsin workers must generally report their injuries within two years in order to seek compensation. However, it is advisable for workers to report potential injuries sooner, even if an injury does not seem serious. Workers may also benefit from meeting with a workers' compensation attorney. If an injury does merit a claim, an attorney can provide advice on documenting and properly preparing the claim.

Keywords: workplace, injury, accident