Patient-Handling Equipment Prevents Workers’ Injuries

By Stephenie Overman May 14, 2015
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The right patient-handling equipment and proper training can save hospitals significant money in workers’ compensation claims, lost time and even recruiting costs, but the industry has been slow to make that investment.

“We’ve seen everything from organizations that do nothing related to safe patient handling to comprehensive programs,” said Jaime Murphy Dawson, a senior policy advisor for the American Nurses Association.

Health care workers suffer twice the average rate of musculoskeletal injuries from overexertion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The biggest risk factor for these overexertion injuries is the manual moving and handling of patients.

Reducing patient-handling injuries produces a minimum of 30 percent and as much as 40 percent savings in workers’ compensation claims and associated payments, according to data from global medical technology products company ArjoHuntleigh. It also reduces indirect costs for employee replacement, incident investigation, supervisor time, staff training, and the social cost of pain and suffering.

The American Nurses Association produced a set of national standards in 2013 to address the problem of unsafe patient handling. Creating a culture of safety requires input from members of all parts of the organization, Dawson said. “HR is an important member of that inter-professional team. They have an interest in safety and in an employee’s ability to work,” she noted.

HR should be involved with data collection, determining how resources are allocated, making sure staff members are well-trained and periodically evaluating the safe patient-handling program, she said.

“Everyone needs to have buy-in. It affects just about everything—employee safety, a patient’s length of stay, finances.”

The team should be involved in making sure the facility is designed to “engineer out” risk to health care workers, which means everything from ensuring that door frames are wide enough to installing overhead lifts, she said.

“The gold standard is ceiling lifts in rooms,” Dawson added, because “there is no safe way to manually lift a patient.”

In 2008, the Veterans Health Administration “invested heavily” in purchasing equipment and setting up a safe patient-handling and mobility program in every facility in its 150 hospitals across the country, said Gail Powell-Cope, co-director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Tampa, Fla.

“As a result, we’ve seen decreases in musculoskeletal injuries,” she said. The evidence shows not only a decrease in worker injuries but also better results for patients. Because patients can be moved more easily, they are less likely to be left immobile, which can result in pneumonia and other problems.

Educating everyone about the importance of proper patient handling and training employees to use the equipment correctly is key to the program’s success, Powell-Cope said. “Some people tend to think you put the equipment in and that’s the end of the program. The basics should be included in new employee orientation; there should be hands-on training for new people.”

Assessment is an important part of that training, she added, so that employees know how “to choose the right piece of equipment based on what it can do.”

Using peer leaders—specially trained staff at the local level—to provide on-the-spot training when and where nurses need it is also important, Powell-Cope said.

Dawson recommended that hospitals hold “open houses” where health care workers can try out new equipment. And when scheduling training sessions, employers should keep in mind the needs of the many employees who work nonstandard shifts.

The right equipment facilitates reasonable accommodation and return to work, she added. “If you have the equipment and people are trained, the risk should be engineered out. Employees can return to work and not have to risk re-injury.”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.​

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