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Knowledge at Work - UL Workplace Health & Safety

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Occupational Health

First, heal thyself: OSHA responds to the crisis in healthcare worker health

November 21, 2011 - Posted by Dr. Bill Newkirk

On November 9, 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics released data showing that the 2010 incidence of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work was 2 ½ times higher in health care support workers than in the population as a whole. And the rate is increasing: musculoskeletal disorder cases with days away from work for nursing aides, orderlies and attendants increased 10 percent from the previous year.

David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded to these findings:

“It is unacceptable that the workers who have dedicated their lives to caring for our loved ones when they are sick are the very same workers who face the highest risk of work-related injury and illness. These injuries can end up destroying a family's emotional and financial security. While workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities take an enormous toll on this nation's economy – the toll on injured workers and their families is intolerable.

The rates of injuries and illnesses among hospital and health care workers underscore OSHA's concern about the safety and health of these workers. OSHA is responding by launching, in the next few months, a National Emphasis Program on Nursing Home and Residential Care Facilities. Through this initiative, we will increase our inspections of these facilities, focusing on back injuries from resident handling or lifting patients; exposure to bloodborne pathogens and other infectious diseases; workplace violence; and slips, trips and falls.

The workers that care for our loved ones deserve a safe workplace and OSHA is diligently working to make this happen.”

Many will welcome this initiative. Organizations employing healthcare workers need to prepare. Unfortunately, this initiative is likely to run into serious problems. A 2005 California Healthcare Foundation report, entitled “California’s Fragile Nursing Home Industry”, reports:

  • Only a small percentage of the state's freestanding nursing homes meet the standards recommended for staffing levels to provide good nursing care.
  • High staff turnover threatens quality of care with more than two-thirds of the nursing staff in California's nursing homes leaving their jobs in previous year.
  • Half of the state's nursing homes reported negative or zero profit margins.

You can read more about this here.

So what should we make of this? My experience over the last three decades treating OSHA’s targeted population of nursing aides, orderlies and attendants is that the most common cause these workers cite for musculoskeletal injuries is inadequate staffing. When I would ask about an unsafe lift and why additional help was not obtained, these healthcare workers would frequently ask: “From whom?” While OSHA’s interest in the health of our healers is admirable, unless it is able to address the core issues of staffing, turnover and profitability, its new initiative is unlikely to have the intended effect.

What are your thoughts on OSHA's new initiative?


Topics: compliance, occupational health, workplace safety, OSHA, healthcare, occupational safety, injury prevention, hospital, safety culture, department of labor