Healthcare tops list for workplace injuries; OSHA 'hamstrung'

Forget crab fishing. Healthcare is the country's most dangerous occupation, causing more than $7 billion each year in back injuries alone, according to a new report by Public Citizen.

The healthcare industry reported 653,900 workplace injuries and illnesses in 2010, according to the report, 152,000 more than the second most-dangerous industry sector, manufacturing. Construction is even farther down the list.

Yet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducts 20 times more inspections at construction sites than at healthcare facilities, even though healthcare workers outnumber construction workers by more than two-to-one, Public Citizen said in an announcement describing OSHA as "hamstrung" in its ability to take action to protect healthcare workers.

"OSHA is required by law to ensure safe conditions for every employee in the United States," report co-author Keith Wrightson said in a statement. "The record is clear that the government has broken its promise to healthcare workers."

The report included the caveat that the rate of injuries for healthcare workers is lower than the number of injuries, since healthcare employs a larger workforce than some other sectors. Still, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants suffered a rate of musculoskeletal injuries seven times the national rate in 2011. 

And 45 percent of all workplace violence incidents resulting in lost workdays occurred in healthcare, according to the findings. Some 91 shootings occurred inside U.S. hospitals, and 63 occurred on hospital grounds between 2000 and 2011, according to recent studies.

The Public Citizen report blamed Congress for underfunding OSHA, and said lawmakers had repeatedly "obstructed" efforts to strengthen its authority. Meanwhile, an OSHA attempt to address injuries among nursing-home workers does not cover hospitals or other healthcare facilities, Public Citizen noted. And because of a "high evidentiary threshold," the group said, nursing homes have received only seven citations for ergonomics injuries in the past two years.

Public Citizen recommended OSHA increase the number of inspections at healthcare facilities "several fold," and that Congress significantly increase funding.

A December report from consulting firm Aon Risk Solutions found that the increased focus on patient safety carried over into workplace safety, leading to fewer worker compensation claims and lower loss rates.

"The patient and worker safety programs share a lot of the same characteristics," said Martha Bronson Posey, senior consultant and actuary with Aon's Actuarial & Analytics group. "So if your environment is safer for your patients, it is inherently safer for your workers."

For more:
- download the Public Citizen report (.pdf)
- read the announcement

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