Nurses Face Workplace Hazards

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. hospitals recorded close to 58,000 workplace injuries in 2013—nearly twice as high as the injury rate for private industry overall. Nurses in particular face a wide variety of hazards on the job, causing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to tighten up protections, beginning in 2015. The new emphasis on safety was said to be a response to the number of injuries nurses were sustaining while lifting or moving patients. But there are other workplace hazards nurses should be aware of. 

  • Infectious diseases. Nurses are frequently exposed to hepatitis B, MRSA, tuberculosis, and HIV. Exposure to blood-borne pathogens sometimes occurs during a needlestick injury, which experts estimate happens to 800,000 healthcare workers every year.
  • Latex allergy. Unfortunately, allergies can develop at any time. A mild allergic reaction might cause dermatitis, while a severe allergy can trigger anaphylaxis. Vinyl gloves can safely replace latex when clinicians are allergic.
  • Radiation exposure. Nurses working in the radiology department or ER may have higher than average risk of exposure and should take all precautions to limit exposure.
  • Chemical exposure. Sterilizing agents and chemotherapy drugs carry a significant health risk. Any nurse using these chemicals should exercise caution and follow proper protocols.
  • Assault. According to the CDC, nurses are more often the target of workplace violence than any other category of healthcare worker, with the ER and psychiatric units having the highest rates of assault and verbal threats.
  • Dermatitis resulting from hand hygiene. A study from the U.K. revealed that healthcare professionals who adhere to proper hand hygiene protocols are the most likely to have moderate or severe cases of contact dermatitis.

Not surprisingly, the number one health concern identified by 74 percent of respondents to an ANA survey was the effects of stress and overwork. Those caring for terminal patients or working in oncology were especially susceptible to high stress levels. Rotating shifts and 12-hour shifts were also noted as stress-causing. When emotional and mental stress builds up, it often manifests in physical ways, causing headaches, fatigue, depression, gastrointestinal distress, or back/neck pain. Workload overload and burnout can result from insufficient nurse-to-patient ratios or mandatory overtime during periods of short-staffing.

The phrase “culture of safety” is a common buzzword in healthcare these days—but it is focused on keeping patients safe from errors and injury, while workplace safety for nurses has received less attention. The fact is, a failure to keep nurses safe from workplace hazards, illness, or injury can have direct consequences on patient care. When nurses have physical problems like a back injury, they’re likely to retire early or change careers—which can contribute to the looming nursing shortage. Those who stay on the job may experience job dissatisfaction and burnout, which research has linked to higher rates of poor outcomes, like hospital-acquired infections. When nurses are healthy, well rested, and safe on the job, they have more life- and job-satisfaction overall—which, in turn, has an impact on patient outcomes and quality of care.

Since nurses are essential to the overall healthcare system, their own safety is essential. If you see an area of concern at your place of employment, look for OSHA materials online and speak up about it. To help nurses avoid back injuries, OSHA has created a website full of resources about safe patient handling, including downloadable documents, posters, and checklists.

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