Most people think of nursing as a nurturing profession, and it can be indeed. However, that does not mean the profession is immune from on-the-job injuries. In the course of their careers, these dedicated health care professionals endure the risk of repetitive injuries from handling heavy patients daily, managing injections on patients who can turn belligerent, walk a ton of miles and spend huge amounts of time on their feet (not playing poker as Washington State Senator Maureen Walsh recently opined to the internet ire of nurses everywhere).
Shockingly, even though they work in a caring role, nurses face increasingly high levels of workplace violence. Soaring health costs, addiction rates and diminishing senior care results in many nurses getting attacked by the very patients they support. Here’s what nurses and all those who work in the health care industry need to know about the risk of harm and how to prevent injury.
Common Causes of On-The-Job Harm
Few non-practitioners stop to think of the multiple stresses nurses and other health care workers put on their body every day. But repetitive stress injuries make up a significant percentage of on-the-job harm.
In the U.S., the average patient weighs over 80 kilos or 177 pounds. Despite forward strides in equality, females continue to dominate the nursing industry. Even though the average woman in America stands 5’4″ and weighs roughly 170 pounds herself, hoisting more than her own body weight daily can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as back injuries.
Back injuries make up the leading cause of disabling injuries worldwide although those in the U.S. may encounter difficulty trying to convince the Social Security Administration to award benefits. Nurses who often must assist in lifting, turning and re-positioning heavy patients endure repetitive back pain injuries often. And, given how over a third of American adults now suffer from obesity, this strain can be hefty indeed.
Needle sticks comprise another common type of workplace injury among nurses. Nurses suffer nearly 400,000 accidental sharps injuries per year, and in the age of HIV and other blood-borne pathogens like the one suspected to cause mad cow disease, these injuries can be scary indeed.
Nurses who endure such sticks benefit from washing and “milking,” bleeding as much as possible immediately, as viruses multiply quickly in the bloodstream. Depending on the type of exposure, those so exposed need to undergo testing for HIV along with other pathogens. Being splashed with blood ranks only slightly less scary as microscopic tears in the skin can allow infection.
The Rising Problem of Workplace Violence Against Nurses
Sadly, workplace violence among nurses is shockingly common. Nurses must take care never to allow patients or family members of patients stand between them and an escape route like an open door as they may need to retreat quickly. This proves particularly important in the ER, where nearly half of all workers in these positions have experienced at least one episode of workplace violence.
Sometimes, patients perform acts of violence due to dementia, other times, the acting out stems from substance abuse. In extreme cases, anger at soaring health care costs can inspire violence as well. The stress of a frustrating diagnosis also increases the risk of violence from patients.
Recently, 26 members of Congress introduced The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (HR 1309). Nurses everywhere flocked to applaud the measure as necessary in preventing future acts of violence against health care workers.
The measure requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to draft new guidelines mandating employers to take safety measures prior to acts of violence occurring. If passed, the bill also will require the swift implementation of safety plans and additional measures protecting workers while on the job.
Burnout Among Nurses
A recent study of 600 nurses indicated that half of professionals working in the field have considered switching to a less strenuous position. In addition to facing workplace violence, nurses also must deal with delivering heartbreaking news on a daily basis. They also deal with long hours, often working shifts of 10-12 hours at a stretch, and they lose patients for whom they care deeply.
In order to prevent burnout, facilities do well to ensure adequate staffing levels to prevent both overwhelm and overuse injuries resulting from too few practitioners available to lift overweight or obese patients. They also can provide sufficient paid sick leave for dealing with both emotional and physical strain. Performing regular surveys to discover new ways to support staff members can help health care practices retain their top performers.
Treating Nurses the Way They Deserve
All workers deserve to labor in atmospheres offering respect and individual dignity, especially those who care for people at their lowest and sickest times. By treating nurses with greater respect and taking sound legislative measures to decrease episodes of workplace violence and burnout, we can show those who take care of us that they matter, too.
About the Author:
Kate Harveston is a health researcher and journalist from Pennsylvania. If you enjoy her work, you can visit her blog on women’s reproductive health, So Well, So Woman.