Health industry resists safety protocols to protect worker injuries

By David Ferguson

A new report from the advocacy group Public Citizen says that hospital executives and administrators have no plan of action for lowering the staggering rate of on-the-job injuries for nurses. Furthermore, institutions appear to resist any government attempt to regulate the industry from the outside.

"Many of the injuries suffered by healthcare workers are musculoskeletal disorders, which result from moving or repositioning patients without adequate assistive technology," the group said in the report announcement. "As Public Citizen's research has demonstrated, these injuries can be career-ending events for many nurses. But safe patient handling practices have been shown to reduce injuries and save healthcare providers money."

The report, titled "Little Support from Above," says that the American Hospital Association opposes regulation, as do the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-led Coalition for Workplace Safety, the American Health Care Association and its affiliated National Center for Assisted Living.

However, when asked how they intend to remedy the issue of injuries from patient handling, "none of the organizations offered a meaningful response," according to Public Citizen.

"It is a cruel irony that an industry devoted to health shows such disregard for the health of its own employees," said report author Taylor Lincoln. "Ultimately, the healthcare industry bears responsibility for this problem. In the meantime, legislators and regulators should exercise the full extent of their public protection mandate to help healthcare executives see the light."

The report points out that while groups representing healthcare employers staunchly oppose regulations and new patient handling laws, groups that represent the actual workers support these measures.

A policy statement from the American Nurses Association stands in favor of actions and policies that result in the elimination of manual patient handling.

U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels has called for laws to protect healthcare workers. Last year, Michaels sent a letter to 5,000 of the nation's hospital administrators calling hospitals America's "most hazardous" places to work, NPR reported

A June memo from the agency added musculoskeletal injuries to the list of points of inspection for OSHA investigators. Although the agency issued regulations in 2000 requiring employers to take measures to protect workers against musculoskeletal injuries on the job, Congress repealed it the following year.  "Without a rule," the advocacy group said in the announcement, "OSHA is severely limited in its ability to protect healthcare workers."

Michaels told NPR earlier this year, however, that the agency must move slowly in order to ensure that its rulings are fair and enforceable.  "The requirements that OSHA has to go through to issue a new standard are very, very onerous," he said. "It takes us years if not decades to put out a rule."

To learn more:
- here's the announcement
- read the report (.pdf)
- check out the memo
- here's the NPR article