When you think of hazardous workplaces, hospitals might not come to mind. Healthcare workers, after all, aren’t usually exposed to heights like those in the construction industry, or heavy equipment like agricultural workers. Still, in 2017, there were more reported injury and illness cases in healthcare than in any other private sector: 582,800 cases, according to OSHA. That’s 153,900 cases above the next most-dangerous industry—manufacturing.
What risks are healthcare workers exposed to?
So why is healthcare work so risky, and why aren’t there better safeguards for the very people who need their full strength and health to be resilient caregivers for patients and families?
Healthcare workers face a wide range of risks, including:
- Exposure to bloodborne pathogens (needle sticks, etc.)
- Biological hazards
- Chemical and drug exposure
- Respiratory hazards
- Ergonomic or lifting injuries
- X-ray and radioactive material exposure
- Workplace violence
Non-medical support staff—the people who keep the hospital running and comfortable—also face industry-specific injuries related to food service, laundry, mechanical maintenance and groundskeeping.
Medical providers sometimes treat their everyday risk exposure as a matter of course. But it’s important for hospitals to connect the safety and health of staff to the quality of patient care—and to the institution’s bottom line. Injuries or the overwork caused by absent employees can lead to lowered morale or increased turnover. Employees managing their own injuries or the stress caused by injuries also may be more likely to make errors. Ultimately, having healthier caregivers means better patient care.
Hospital safety systems—a clear set of steps for every potentially unsafe situation, should be a core component of any hospital’s quality goals. Hospital safety staff should find workplace hazards before injuries occur and address them through remediation or training. For example, many healthcare injuries occur when nursing assistants try to move or reposition a patient, resulting in a musculoskeletal injury. Safe patient handling procedures, like those that lay out when to use mechanical lifting equipment, can help avoid these injuries while also creating a safer, more comfortable situation for the patient.
Workplace Violence in Healthcare
Alarmingly, workplace violence is becoming one of the more common occupational hazards for healthcare workers. With regular exposure to people who may be emotionally unstable, distraught or under the influence of drugs, healthcare employees often experience verbal or even physical abuse at the hands of patients or patient family members. From 2002 to 2013, rate of serious violence incidents requiring time off from work was four times greater in healthcare than in private industry, according to OSHA.
Training, especially for frontline staff, like those working in an emergency department, is critical. The Joint Commission recommends that staff be educated on how to deal with violent behavior—preventing it through de-escalation, knowing what to do when it occurs and properly reporting incidents. Access and hospital design can also help protect workers.