Data collected by the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics indicate that hospitals are among the most hazardous places to work. Approximately 7 out of every 100 full-time employees suffer from work-related injuries and illnesses each year. While hospitals have been reducing rates of injuries and illnesses over time, it has not been as effective as other industries, such as construction and manufacturing—two industries that were traditionally thought to be relatively hazardous. This slow reduction in injury and illness rates may be attributed to the fact that hospitals face unique challenges, which contribute to the risk of injuries and illnesses.

The Unique Culture of Healthcare

Hospital workers often encounter unique risks that are typically uncommon in other industries. It is these unique risks and culture that contribute to the challenges:

  • Hospital workers are required to lift or reposition patients with limited mobility, which can lead to challenges with regards to safe patient handling, especially if it is a larger patient
  • Hospital workers work in close proximity to potentially contagious patients, as well as sharp tools that may be contaminated with blood-borne pathogens
  • Hospital workers feel they have an ethical duty to not harm patients and as such, often put patient safety above their own safety

Hospital Worker Hazards, Injuries and Illnesses

Most injuries and illnesses result from a few well-known hazards. The most common injuries are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as sprains and strains. Sprains and strains result from overexertion or bodily reaction, which includes motions like slipping without falling, reaching, lifting and bending—these motions often relate to patient handling. Other hazards that can cause injuries among hospital workers are: contact with objects (puncture with needles) or equipment, exposure to harmful substances, slips, trips and falls, and violence via interacting with patients or patients’ relatives. For illnesses, the most common types of work-related injuries are skin disorders and respiratory conditions.

Hospital Workers Most At Risk

Hospital employment is increasing, putting a larger number of workers at risk. Additionally, the aging workforce is increasing workers’ susceptibility to injuries and illnesses. As hospital workers grow older, bones begin to weaken, which increases their risk of fractures and cumulative trauma (MSDS) while handling patients. Additionally, the immune system slows with age resulting in a higher susceptibility to infectious diseases, as well as prolonged recovery periods. Further, reports by the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics indicate that nurses and nursing aides are among the occupational groups most at risk of injury, particularly for musculoskeletal disorders.

Improving the Safety of Hospital Workers

Although hospitals face many challenges when it comes to worker safety, there are many opportunities for improvement, which are practical and cost-effective.

1. Safe patient handling program, policies and equipment

Implement a comprehensive program to promote safe lifting, repositioning and transfer of patients. An effective safe patient handling program should include the following elements:

  • Equipment, such as ceiling-mounted lifts and slide sheets that facilitate lateral transfer
  • Minimal-lift policies and patient assessment tools
  • Training for all caregivers, as well as dedicated lifting teams

2. Safety and health management system to foster a culture of safety

Implement a proactive and collaborative safety and health management system to find and fix workplace hazards. A successful safety and health management system should entail these six core elements:

  • Management leadership
  • Employee participation
  • Hazard identification and assessment
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Education and training
  • Program evaluation and improvement

3. Good record keeping

Before a problem can be solved, it must first be understood. Every hospital should implement an efficient record keeping system. Analyzing data can give greater insight into the hazards that exist in the workplace. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), all hospitals (both public and private) should record all work-related injuries or illnesses resulting in:

  • Death
  • Days away from work
  • Restricted work
  • Transfer to another job
  • Medical treatment beyond first aid
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Professional diagnosed injury or illness (e.g., cancer and chronic irreversible)
  • Needle sticks and sharps injuries
  • Exposure to tuberculosis
  • Occupational hearing loss
  • Adverse reactions to work-related vaccinations

4. Enhanced the quality and completeness of injury and illness records

To ensure a successful record keeping system, hospital safety and health managers should consider the following:

  • Privacy. Allow provisions for workers to substitute their names to “privacy case” in events that include: sexual assault, mental illness, HIV or tuberculosis, or a worker’s voluntarily request to omit his/her name
  • Incident tracking and reporting systems. Provide an accessible, straightforward system that will allow workers to report an injury or illness
  • Tracking “near misses”. It is useful to track these events because they can reveal areas of concern and allow the hospital to implement measures that prevent future injuries from occurring
  • Underreporting. To reduce underreporting, safety and health managers can ensure that all workers understand the hospital’s reporting policy

Why Hospital Worker Safety Matters (According to OSHA)

  • Workplace injuries take a toll on workers and their families. Hospital workers are subjected to harm not only in terms of physical harm and disability, but financial instability due to loss of income, as well as psychological disorders like depression
  • Workplace injuries and illnesses come at a high cost to hospitals. Workers’ compensation claims include medical costs to treat or recover from the illness or injury, compensation for wages lost and administrative costs
  • An injury can lead to thousands of dollars in additional costs for overtime, temporary staffing or the in case of permanent disability, replacement. Even if an injured worker does not have to miss work, the injury can still lead to “hidden costs” such as time spent investigating injuries, wages paid for absences not covered by workers’ compensation and increased use of employee healthcare benefits
  • Worker injuries can adversely affect patient safety and satisfaction. Studies have shown that a healthy, stable workforce creates an atmosphere conducive to patient confidence and satisfaction
  • All of society bears the cost of workplace injuries. As hospitals incur the cost of workplace injuries, they may pass the cost along to patients, insurance companies, or tax-funded government services through higher rates