News & Events

Excessive Health Care Injuries Can be Prevented by Bill Requiring Safe Patient Handling Practices

When: Tuesday, December 8 at 1 p.m.

Where: State House, Room B

What: Joint Committee on Public Health hearing on An Act relative to safe patient handling in certainhealth facilities (S.1124/H.1914)

Who: Past MNA President and Cape Cod Hospital RN Beth Piknick; Faulkner Hospital RN Dan Rec; Physical therapist and safe patient handling expert Kathleen Nelson; and Christine Pontus, an Associate Director in MNA’s Occupational Health and Safety Division

Beth Piknick was 21 years into her nursing career when she helped another nurse move a patient into bed at Cape Cod Hospital. That movement – performed by nurses every day across the country – sent a stabbing pain into Piknick’s back and derailed her career as an Intensive Care Unit nurse.

Despite surgery and major rehabilitation, Piknick was unable to return to the job she loved. She had developed a debilitating injury from years of repetitive lifting and repositioning patients without the proper equipment. A past president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, Piknick has been advocating since her injury for safe patient handling (SPH) improvements at hospitals, to save nurses from the pain she experienced nearly 25 years ago.

“My family had to cope with both my physical and now my psychological problems as well. The true cost to them can never be quantified,” Piknick said. “One of the most surprising and disturbing moments in this whole experience was when I learned that my injury could have been prevented. I thought my facility was up to date with equipment. It wasn’t. There is equipment available for every lift and/or movement that is necessary to safely take care of our patients.”

As health care workers in Massachusetts move patients – each lifting 1.8 tons during an average shift – they are being injured at precipitous rates. Solutions have been proposed by both a state task force and the MNA, and yet the hospital industry refuses to take action. In fact, as documented in an alarming report by WGBH News, the Massachusetts Hospital Association actively worked to suppress a Department of Public Health report detailing SPH recommendations for more than a year.

WGBH reported last February that Laura Punnett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Department of Work Environment, raised concerns about how a report by the Massachusetts Hospital Ergonomics Task Force was dealt with after being submitted to DPH. Punnett, a member of the task force, said the report was given to DPH in 2013, but remained unpublished until December 2014, as the MHA conveyed concerns about “the implications of these recommendations.”

The DPH report was made public only after the pressure exerted by WGBH’s investigation. Once published, the task force’s findings made clear both the scope of the patient handling problem and the hospital industry’s unwillingness to implement comprehensive injury prevention programs.

Health care workers are injured on the job more than those in any other profession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Massachusetts, they are twice as likely to be injured as those in other industries and suffer from patient handling injuries at a rate 70 percent higher than those in other states. In 2010 alone, an estimated 1,000 Massachusetts health care workers suffered patient handling injuries so severe that they resulted in 59 years of missed days of work, according to the DPH report.

Hospitals incur significant direct and indirect costs due to these injuries, but comprehensive SPH programs that use equipment to minimize or eliminate the manual handling of patients are successful at reducing both injuries and cost, according to the report. Facilities that implement SPH programs recoup their initial financial investment within 1 to 4 years.

Yet most Massachusetts health care facilities have done little or nothing to address this problem. Only 44 percent (37) of the 88 hospitals surveyed by the task force reported having a written SPH program in practice. The report also showed that policies varied from hospital to hospital.

It is clear the hospital industry will not address this crisis on its own. Massachusetts needs a legislative remedy. An Act relative to safe patient handling in certain health facilities (S.1124/H.1914) will be heard by the Joint Committee on Public Health on Tuesday. Its components match virtually every SPH recommendation made by the DPH task force.

Dan Rec knows what it is like to work at a hospital that is taking the right steps to protect health care workers. At Brigham & Women’s Faulkner Hospital, where Rec is a registered nurse, staff members use HoverMatts that allow patients to float on a cushion of air, so caregivers can safely transfer them throughout the hospital without lifting or straining. Other SPH equipment at Faulkner includes ceiling lifts, slide boards and “sit-to-stand” devices.

“Proper, ergonomic equipment will not only benefit caregivers,” Rec said. “In addition to the decrease in injury to the nurses and other bed side staff, obtaining these tools has also increased early mobility for patients – providing them with a shorter healing time and decreased hospital stays. This in turn can provide additional cost savings to the health care system.”