This post was updated in May 2020 with the most recent information on nursing workplace hazards.
Nursing is definitely a fulfilling and important career path. You likely chose nursing because you wanted to work in a meaningful job and help people. Without question, nursing offers many rewards, but it’s important to be aware of another aspect: workplace hazards.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2016, RNs in the private industry experienced an estimated 19,790 days-away-from-work injury and illness cases. These cases occurred at an incidence rate of 104.2 cases per 10,000 full-time workers, greater than the rate for all occupations (91.7 per 10,000 workers).
It’s important to understand the workplace hazards that you might face, including physical hazards, chemical hazards, and others. If nothing else, being aware will help you practice safety on the job.
How to Safeguard Against Workplace Hazards
Before getting into some of the common dangers of nursing, remember: many professions have safety issues and threats. But reducing risk and accident prevention can help, as can using best practices and following proper protocols for activities like:
- Lifting and moving patients
- Handling sharp objects
- Dealing with chemicals
- Wearing protective clothing and equipment
- Following safety procedures and precautions in the hospital
The more you protect yourself and the more precautious you take, the better equipped you will be to stay safe, healthy and happy.
The Most Common Physical Dangers for Nurses
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a major concern in occupational healthcare is the potential for musculoskeletal disorders. Nurses often deal with physical hazards due to:
- Heavy manual lifting when transferring or repositioning patients
- Working in awkward positions
- Straining to lift or move obese patients
- A significant amount of time standing and walking
There are other physical dangers commonly associated with certain patient populations, such as those in psychiatric wards, emergency rooms, waiting rooms and geriatric units. The CDC reports that nurses are more often the target of workplace violence than other healthcare workers. Effects include:
- Minor and serious physical injuries
- Temporary and permanent physical disability
- Psychological trauma
Other Dangers for Nurses
The physical dangers of nursing are most obvious, 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. 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.
- Chemical exposure. Sterilizing agents and chemotherapy drugs carry a significant health risk.
- Dermatitis resulting from hand hygiene. Healthcare professionals who adhere to proper hand hygiene protocols are the most likely to have moderate or severe cases of contact dermatitis.
Stress Challenges for Nurses
As wonderful a career as nursing is, it does come with stress. Nurses, especially those in hospital and acute care settings, can work long hours and in stressful settings. Other examples of situations that lead to stress on the job for nurses include:
- Caring for terminal patients (e.g. in an oncology unit or cancer center)
- Rotating shifts and 12-hour shifts
- Fast-paced, emergent situations (e.g. in an emergency room or level one trauma center environment)
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.
How Do Nursing Hazards Affect Patient Care?
The phrase “culture of safety” is a term you might have heard. A culture of safety is one that elevates the importance of keeping patients safe from errors and injury. Yet, workplace safety for nurses does not always receive the attention it should. The reality is, failing to keep nurses safe from workplace hazards, illness, or injurycan have direct consequences on patient care. A few examples:
- When nurses have physical problems like back injuries, they’re less likely to be able to do their jobs effectively.
- When nurses are overly stressed when they are at work, it leads to early burnout and a likelihood that they will change careers, which contributes further to the looming nursing shortage.
- Job dissatisfaction and burnout has linked to higher rates of poor outcomes, like hospital-acquired infections.
Bottom line: When nurses are healthy, well rested, and safe on the job, they have more job satisfaction (and life satisfaction) overall—which, in turn, has an impact on patient outcomes and quality of care.
As mentioned earlier, reducing your risk as a nurse will help you avoid some of the more common dangers in the profession.
Educating yourself is also essential. If you’re interested in furthering your education with a BSN or MSN degree, explore American Sentinel University. We have MSN specializations in Infection Prevention and Control as well as Case Management, Nursing Informatics, Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner, and Nursing Management and Organizational Leadership.
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