Special Topics in Safety Management

Unsafe Workplaces Chasing Nurses Away

Healthcare workplaces are fraught with risks, but the extent of those dangers – and their impact on the ongoing nursing shortage – may be greater than you think.

Nursing clearly is not the safest of professions.

Working in close proximity to sick people, scalpels, needles, and other sharps obviously entails risks. But most of us probably underestimate just how dangerous nursing can be.

Of the more than 1,000 registered nurses responding to a statewide survey in New Jersey last year, more than 25 percentreported a work-related injury in the past 5 years resulting in lost time from work. Over the same period of time:

  • 52 percent reported back or other musculoskeletal injuries from lifting or moving patients.
  • 33 percent reported episodes of violence in the workplace.
  • 32 percent reported exposure to bloodborne pathogens (including needlesticks).
  • 62 percent reported exposure to MRSA or other “superbugs.”
  • 15 percent said they had been exposed to toxic chemicals; e.g., chemotherapeutic agents.

“Understaffing, increased violence, sicker patients needing more assistance with moving and lifting, and the prevalence of drug-resistant microorganisms all contribute to making healthcare workplaces more dangerous,” reports the study commissioned by the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union.

But they also had another effect: “These dangers also contribute to the deepening of the shortage of nurses and healthcare workers,” the group said.

Employees teach themselves about bloodborne pathogens, as demanded by OSHA’s standard, with BLR’s Interactive CD Course: Bloodborne Pathogens program. Try it at no cost or risk. Get the details.

A national survey of 1,550 nurses also found that workplace hazards are a significant factor in the shortage of nurses.

Almost a third of the nurses in the study reported frequent exposure to combinations of at least five chemicals and other hazardous agents for 10 years or more. Half of the nurses reported regular exposure to combinations of at least six chemicals and other hazardous agents for 5 years or more.

These dangers extended beyond working hours. The study found that nurses with long-term and intense exposures to such environmental hazards developed abovenormal levels of cancer, asthma, miscarriages, children with birth defects, and other serious medical conditions.

“We know there are a lot of disease-environment exposures to nurses who leave, so it adds to the shortage,” Nancy Hughes, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the American Nurses Association, told Maryland Community Newspapers.

Asked which workplace hazards concern them most, registered nurses responding to the New Jersey survey ranked back or other musculoskeletal injuries from lifting or moving patients as their top concern (65%), followed by exposure to MRSA or other “superbugs” (56%). And third on the list, at 45%, was exposure to bloodborne pathogens (including needlesticks).

Try the unique, self-directed, self-testing program, Interactive CD Course: Bloodborne Pathogens, at no cost or risk. Get the info.

But exposure to bloodborne pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms that exist in human blood and other bodily fluids) is not limited to the hospital environment. Of the more than 1,100 non-hospital-based registered nurses responding to a Columbia University survey, nearly 1 in 10 reported at least one needlestick injury in the previous 12 months.

The rate is similar to that for hospital-based nurses, not surprising considering that patient care is increasingly delivered at such nonhospital facilities as clinics, nursing homes, doctors’ offices, and patients’ homes, the study’s authors reported.

Of particular concern, though, was that 70 percent of the exposed nurses were never seen by a healthcare provider at all, even though timely follow-up to such incidents can reduce the risk of infection. Reasons included fear of getting into trouble, not having enough time to report, and not knowing how to report an exposure.

But just as exposure to bloodborne pathogens is not limited to hospitals, neither is it limited to healthcare workers. In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll look at other occupations and tasks that can put workers at risk, and at a tool that can help you train your workforce to recognize these risks and limit their exposure.