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REPORT: Health Care Workers Have Highest Injury Rate, Subpar Safety Standards

August 8, 2013

A July 2013 report by Public Citizen found that health care workers experience more workplace injuries than any other sector in the nation and calls for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop more safety standards and conduct sufficient inspections to protect these workers.

In Health Care Workers Unprotected, Insufficient Inspections and Standards Leave Safety Risks Unaddressed (pdf), Public Citizen reports that the incidence rates of injuries requiring days away from work for nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants were 489 cases per 10,000 in 2011 — more than four times the rate for all workers in the nation.

These workers had the highest rate of work-related musculoskeletal disorders that same year — more than seven times the national rate for all employees.

Workplace violence, including physical assaults and threats of assaults, is also a “major hazard” for health care workers, write Keith Wrightson and Taylor Lincoln, the authors of the report. Nursing care facility workers experience the highest rates of workplace violence at 27.2 per 10,000 workers — seven times the overall private-sector workplace violence injury rate.

OSHA has “devoted relatively little effort to addressing the safety risks at health care facilities” compared to its efforts in the agriculture and construction sector, the authors write. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s health care worker website states that these sectors are “safer today than they were a decade ago.”

Although there are more worker fatalities in the agriculture and construction sectors, the number of workers and injuries causing days away from work is significantly less than for workers in the health care sector, the report explains.

Inspections, Standards, and More OSHA Funding Recommended

In 10 states that have “safe patient handling laws” to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, the rates of these injuries have been reduced, the authors point out. Under these state laws, health care providers are typically required to provide mechanical lifting and transferring devices so that employees don’t have to perform these tasks manually — the greatest risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders.

The authors recommend that OSHA “dramatically” increase the number of inspections at health care facilities and develop standards to protect workers against recognized hazards, particularly in the areas of repetitive motion injuries, workplace violence, and injuries caused by sharp objects. Several standards promulgated by OSHA in the past that have proven successful and often “exceeded their goals” — such as the “bloodborne pathogen standard” — are cited by the authors.

In the absence of standards, they recommend that OSHA “expand its use of the general duty clause to cite health care facilities for hazards not documented in existing rules.”

Given that OSHA’s budget is “miniscule compared to the size of its mandate,” Public Citizen also calls for increased funding for OSHA to adequately address the safety need of health care workers.

— by Deane Beebe

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