Safety is something we think about constantly in our daily lives. We look both ways when we cross the street, we buckle our seatbelts when we get into the car, and we put on helmets when we participate in outdoor activities, such as biking, skateboarding and skiing. For many, safety is not an all-consuming concern at work. As health care providers, however, we are exposed to a multitude of dangers every day. According to the United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), a hospital is one of the most hazardous places to work.1
Health care workers experience some of the highest rates of nonfatal illness and injury – surpassing both the construction and manufacturing industries.2
In 2011, U.S. hospitals recorded 253,700 work-related injuries and illnesses, a rate of 6.8 work-related injuries for every 100 full-time employees.1
At work, I regularly lift, turn and transfer patients with limited mobility, strength and balance. I often encounter confused and combative patients who pose a great risk to themselves and the clinical staff. The threat of a needle stick injury and the possible exposure to infectious diseases are two dangers that are perpetually at the forefront of my mind. In nursing school, we were taught basic ergonomic techniques to protect our backs. We were instructed on procedures to prevent unintended exposure to blood borne pathogens. But in the fast-paced world of health care, where patient loads are high, many of these safety strategies fall by the wayside. By nature, nurses often put their own health and safety at risk for the benefit of the patient.3
So, how safe do we really feel at work and what are hospital administrators doing to protect their employees?
In 1979, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which resulted in the creation of the OSHA. OSHA is the government body responsible for ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for employees by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.3
When I began working in the intensive care unit many years ago, I remember having to complete my first annual competency checklist, which incorporated mandatory lectures developed by OSHA. Topics included blood borne pathogens, fire hazards, fall prevention and methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Today, those topics have expanded to include latex allergy, equipment hazards, workplace violence, and workplace stress.4
These topics are just a subset of the hospital-wide OSHA standards spanning every department from dietary to central supply to housekeeping.
One area of hospital workplace safety that has received great attention in the media in recent years is the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This issue was highlighted in the news when the first laboratory-confirmed case of Ebola was diagnosed in the U.S. in September 2014.5
Controversy surrounded this story, which began when a man, who arrived from Liberia initially without symptoms, walked into a Texas emergency room complaining of fever and other flu-like symptoms. After being discharged, he was readmitted several days later and diagnosed with the Ebola virus. Personal Protective Equipment was provided to the staff assigned to the infected patient. Despite these safeguards, however, two clinicians were exposed and ultimately contracted the deadly virus. Thankfully, both nurses survived, but fingers pointed to the hospital administrators, placing blame on their inability to properly educate and ensure the safety of their staff. Were they at fault or just inadequately prepared with minimal resources to deal with this seemingly rare occurrence?
Ebola is an extreme example that emphasized the importance of hospital workplace safety and one that forced hospital administrators across the country to evaluate current policies and procedures. All workers, regardless of the industry, have a right to a safe work environment. Have you noticed any areas of your hospital where improvements could be made to increase overall safety? Do you have recommendations or a success story to share? We would love to hear from you – please leave your comments below.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA): Worker Safety in Hospitals
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA): Hospital eTools
Improving Patient and Worker Safety: Opportunities for Synergy, Collaboration and Innovation (Joint Commission)
1. U.S. Department of Labor: Occupational Safety & Health Administration. (2016) Worker Safety in Hospitals: Caring for Our Caregivers. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/dsg/hospitals/index.html
2. The Joint Commission: Improving Patient and Worker Safety. Retrieved from: http://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/18/tjc-improvingpatientandworkersafety-monograph.pdf
3. U.S. Department of Labor: Occupational Safety & Health Administration. (2016) About OSHA. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/about.html
4. U.S. Department of Labor: Occupational Safety & Health Administration. (2016) Hospital eTools: Intensive Care Units. Https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/hospital/icu/icu.html
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). Cases of Ebola Diagnosed in the United States. http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/united-states-imported-case.html