Healthcare: A Hazardous Industry

Health and safety

The working class is entrenched in routine. Get up. Go to work. Return home. Go to sleep. Repeat. But what happens when that routine is rudely disturbed? What happens when someone returns home with irreversible physical damage, or even worse- in a body bag? Then what? Well, we tend to chalk it up to a freak accident of sorts. But what happens when there’s an entire industry that has rates of work related injury and illness twice that of the private industry as a whole. Do we chalk each incident up to a ‘freak accident’ or do we delve deeper?

April 28th is officially World Day for Safety and Health at Work and is actively promoted by the likes of the UN and the International Labor Organization. The goal of this particular campaign is to encourage a safe and healthy work environment for everybody across all levels. While campaigns are fine and dandy, who ensures that the masses are indeed protected at work? That would be OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), a federal organization under the Department of Labor that enforces standards and provides safety training.

So which industry receives the medal for most hazardous? It’s not construction, or even manufacturing. Surprise, surprise…it’s the healthcare industry. Based on the most recent findings in 2011, U.S. hospitals report on average 6.8 work related injuries or illnesses for every 100 full time employees.  As was previously stated, that’s nearly double the rate of all private U.S. industries.

What gives? There are a number of factors responsible for these startling statistics. First and foremost, healthcare workers are for all intents and purposes, angels in scrubs. So dedicated are they to their profession and their patients, they’ll oftentimes put their own health at risk for the sake of making sure that the patient is optimally cared for. Second of all, it’s important to remember that working in healthcare, while infinitely rewarding, is a far cry from predictable. Things happen. Split second decisions have to be made. And in the interim, catastrophe can prevail.

What truly deserves the most attention, though, is the third and final contributing factor. Many patients have very limited, if any, physical mobility, thanks in large part to the obesity epidemic plaguing the American people. So it’s the health care providers doing all the patient lifting, transferring and repositioning, resulting more often than not in ranging degrees of MSDs (muskuloskeletal disorders). In fact, according to OSHA, 48% of all healthcare related injuries resulting in days off from work are caused by bodily reaction and overexertion.

OSHA has kindly provided us with all this highly disturbing information, but where are they? What have they done to alleviate the situation? Well, they’ve educated the public. They’ve even offered recommendations in safe patient handling that involve investing in equipment such as ceiling mounted lifts and simple slide sheets. Minimal lift policies, training on proper lifting, patient assessment tools…it’s all been suggested. Fact of the matter is, that while several states have mandated safe patient handling practices, and many hospitals such as Stanford University Medical Center have successfully implemented safe patient handling programs, it’s not an OSHA enforced regulation. Here’s another startling fact: OSHA inspections of construction sites are 20 times that of healthcare centers! Why? Why? Why?

We tend to think of government as a vicious sea creature with far reaching tentacles, and there couldn’t be a greater truth. In this particular case, that is. OSHA, ironically, is underfunded, under greater scrutiny than any other federal agency, and faces countless obstacles when it comes to establishing rules and regulations. Over the last decade, OSHA has repeatedly tried to implement rules that would benefit all workers, including healthcare workers. In one instance, they actually attempted to create ergonomic regulations which would have been incredibly beneficial for the healthcare workers at risk of developing MSDs. Congress, however, went ahead and repealed the rule, stating that OSHA has no right to force such a regulation upon an industry. Never mind that Congress doesn’t know half of what OSHA does when it comes to occupational safety and health. Startlingly enough, according to Public Citizen, an advocacy group, it takes OSHA an average of 8-12 years to create awareness for the need to put certain standards into place and then turn it into an actual regulation.

Well then, who’s to blame? If OSHA’s hands are tied and the government won’t change its ways, maybe the hospitals and healthcare facilities should take it upon themselves to implement some of the necessary standards needed to reduce the rate of work related injury and illness. Problem is, for the hospitals, it’s all about the bottom line. Yes, it would be expensive to adopt new standards, invest in new equipment, and educate employees. A bit of investigating, though, would reveal that exceptionally high levels of work related injury and illness, costs. A lot!

According to OSHA’s most recent data, the average worker’s compensation claim for a hospital injury, between 2006 and 2011 was $15,860. For claims involving lost time, the average jumped to $22,300. In a nutshell, hospitals face a loss of$0.78 for every $100 of payroll. That amounts to an annual expense of $2 billion nationwide. And what of the nurses that are actually forced to leave their jobs as a result of injury? Well, the estimated cost of replacing a nurse is between $27,000 and $103,000. This includes recruiting, hiring, training etc.

Another tremendous problem is the toll all this takes on patient care. If a nurse is out, there isn’t necessarily someone to replace her. Which means someone who is probably overworked as it is, will be taking part of the absentee’s load, and this someone, however great a nurse she is, won’t possibly be able to provide everyone with the best care possible. An element of care is going to have to give, someone is going to fall between the cracks, and instead of anyone taking a proactive stance, there will be a lot of finger pointing.

Many paragraphs later, and what has been determined? Who is responsible? What’s being done? There’s no clear answer, and ultimately everyone is accountable on their own level. It’s just so paradoxical how the individuals who have chosen to invest in the well being and safety of others are put at risk for injury and illness each and every day, simply by doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Think about it. It’s a loaded issue and one which should be on everyone’s radar.




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