News & Events

Legislators hear from front-line nurses on safe patient handling needs

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
September 2009 Edition

MNA nurses and supporters testified before the Joint Committee on Public Health in June in support of a bill that would establish a safe patient handling program at all health care facilities in the state.

An Act Providing for Safe Patient Handling, (H.2026/S.803) would require all health care facilities to establish a program to set acceptable standards for the handling of patients to curb the high rate of injuries incurred by RNs and other health care workers when lifting or moving patients. In addition, the bill would require health care facilities to develop and implement a health care worker back injury prevention plan to protect nurses and other caregivers, as well as patients, from injury. The development and submission of this bill was entirely spearheaded by the MNA and, specifically, the MNA’s Safe Patient Handling Task Force.

Very often for health care professionals, back disorders develop as a result of cumulative injuries incurred by repetitive activity over a number of years. Spinal damage is a predictable outcome of repeatedly bending forward and lifting large amounts of weight. As an internal injury, this condition is often overlooked. Symptoms are hidden because the damage occurs over a period of time. According to national statistics six out of the top ten professions at greatest risk for back injury are: nurse’s aides, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, health aides, radiology technicians and physical therapists.

MNA nurses attended the hearing at the State House and described how they were injured on the job. Beth Piknick, president of the MNA and co-chair of the MNA’s safe Patient Handling Task Force, described her ordeal to the committee. For 21 years, Piknick was a nurse in the intensive care unit and was an active person who enjoyed bicycling, water-skiing and whitewater rafting trips with her family. During her career she would routinely push, pull and transfer patients from their bed to a stretcher until one day, after a long weekend of taking care of two difficult patients, she felt a sharp, stabbing pain. Thus began a long road away from her career and towards countless appointments with chiropractors, physical therapists, radiologists, neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons. “My goal was always to get back to the job I loved in the ICU, but after surgery and major rehabilitation that was and continues to remain impossible” said Piknick.

Dominique Muldoon, a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital, described a typical day in the life of a nurse. She spoke about starting her day with six surgical patients who have mobility problems and who during the course of the day need to be lifted or repositioned frequently for a variety of medical reasons. “After seven years of providing direct bedside care, I can already feel the muscle strains in my body,” said Muldoon.

Tina Russell, a retired nurse, spoke about working at the bedside providing direct care to patients for over 40 years. Even though she never had an acute injury, “I have to seriously consider where I sit because if the seat is too low, I might not be able to stand up again. There are so many small things I cannot do, and it really puts limits on my life. This is the result of the small, continuous injuries that happen while lifting and repositioning patients. They are not even noticed when they happen” said Russell.

Terry Donahue, a nurse consultant at a number of Boston area hospitals and the owner of Safe Patient Moves, Inc., shed light on the effectiveness of safe patient handling equipment when she said to the committee that “the size of the average patient is unfortunately getting bigger. Imagine having to lift a 500-pound patient?” Donahue has seen many nurses who have injured their backs, shoulders, knees and necks by either lifting or moving patients.

Stephanie Stevens, an OR nurse at Jordan Hospital, testified about the hospital’s use of OR HoverMatts, a lateral transfer device that reduces the physical exertion required to move patients. Stevens explained how the HoverMatt is an inflatable mat that transfers a patient on a cushion of air. Stevens went on to tell the committee that “as a nurse in the OR, lifting and transferring heavy loads are part of my responsibilities. We love these HoverMatts but we don’t have enough of them. It is a shame if we don’t get any more of these mats, because they could save countless backs and shoulders and we could keep dedicated health care professionals in their jobs.”

Jamie Tessler, an occupational ergonomist and researcher, also testified in support of this legislation. Tessler spoke about the large body of scientific evidence that describes what happens internally to a nurses’ body when patients are manually lifted, why patient handling injuries are so common, and how these painful and costly injuries can be prevented. Everyone knows that nurses are reticent to report their injuries. The very high numbers of injuries reported in the commonwealth are the tip of the iceberg. “Most nurses suffer privately,” testified Tessler.

In addition to the MNA members at the hearing, 1199 SEIU collaborated on the Safe Patient Handling bill and had a member testify in support. Nurses and activists interested in helping move H.2026/S.803 through the legislature are encouraged to contact their local legislators and ask them for a favorable report from the Joint Committee on Public Health. To find your legislator’s contact information, visit and enter your zip code.

For more information on this legislation or to get involved, contact Maryanne McHugh at 781.830.5713.