If you want to live dangerously, work in a nursing home

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

When you buy a pack of cigarettes in this country, you also get an admonition from the Surgeon General. Why? To point out how dangerous going near tobacco products can be.

Maybe job applications in the long-term care sector should carry a similar warning. Perhaps something along the lines of: “Caution: Nursing home workers have higher injury rates than construction workers, lumberjacks and most miners.”

Yes, the suggestion might be extreme. But the message, unfortunately, is all too accurate. In 2012, the injury/illness rate for private-sector nursing and residential care facilities was 7.3%, the government recently reported. By comparison, the figure for construction workers was less than half of that, 3.6%. And for miners (other than oil and gas) it was 2.7%.

Long-term care rates were even higher at state-run facilities, topping 13%. Simply put, working in this field can be hazardous to your health.

So what, if anything, is to be done? Actually, some hopeful developments are already underway.

Earlier this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a campaign that targets industry-related musculoskeletal injuries.

“Our goal is to assist nursing homes and long-term care facilities in promoting effective processes to prevent injuries,” stated MaryAnn Garrahan, OSHA regional administrator in Philadelphia.

The safety administration — part of the Labor Department — is distributing information to more than 2,500 employers, unions and healthcare associations in a region that includes Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

The information will include methods for transferring patients safely. The administration also is encouraging zero-lift programs, through which direct lifting is eliminated by the use of equipment and tools.

That's a laudable goal because manual lifting – which often cannot be avoided – is what's causing so many of the injuries that happen in this sector. Why this effort isn't happening nationwide is a bit of a mystery.

To its credit, the American Nurses Association is seeking to completely eliminate manual handling of residents. And a bill in the House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), would institute protections for nursing home staff.

These are all hopeful signs. But they really don't go far enough. Manual lifting should be completely illegal, in my opinion. However, given the unpredictable nature of resident falls and facility budgets, that seems highly unlikely.

Continued manual lifting might be good news for chiropractors, physicians, plaintiffs' attorneys and pain remedy companies. But it's bad news for the rest of us.

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