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Addressing a leading cause of nursing injuries: Lifting patients

Most of the women and men who go into nursing have some idea of the on-the-job hazards they will face. Obviously, there are concerns about communicable diseases, bodily fluids and sharp objects. But nurses are often unprepared for one of the most common types of injuries associated with their profession: Injuries sustained while lifting patients.

Patients in the hospital may need to be transferred in and out of beds and wheelchairs. Some even need to be turned regularly to prevent bedsores. Up until now, most nurses have been trained to engage in "manual transfers," where they rely on their own body strength or work in coordination with other nurses. But this can be dangerous. About 35,000 nurses are injured each year while performing manual transfers. Most of the time, these are shoulder and lower-back injuries.

There are many factors that contribute to manual-transfer injuries, including the fact that patients seem to be heavier, on average, than in the past. Also, nurses are not hired based on their body size and ability to lift considerable weight, nor should they be. As such, many nurses may be smaller than the patients they need to move.

The good news is that there are technological solutions hospitals can use to prevent manual-transfer injuries to both nurses and patients. These include mechanical lifts built into ceilings and other devices that allow patients to be moved more easily by redistributing their body weight.

The bad news is that investing in such equipment costs money. As such, hospitals are often unwilling to do so. Failing to make the investment sends a clear and inappropriate message: Nurses are expendable.

There may be a silver lining here, however. Nurses who suffer injuries moving patients often have legal recourse, whether through workers' compensation benefits or through legal action against their employer. If hospital administrators weigh the costs of buying equipment against the costs of benefits claims and potential lawsuits, the financial choice is clear. Hopefully, as nurses assert their rights to safety on the job, more hospitals will invest in equipment to help move patients safely and reliably.

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