If you have watched the news at all in the past months, you have heard about the risk that Ebola poses to health care workers worldwide. Health care workers in the United States have complained that they have not been properly trained to deal with an Ebola patient should one present at their medical facility. Perhaps you also saw the security camera footage, released by authorities in Maplewood, Minnesota, of a 68-year-old patient chasing and attacking several nurses at a hospital with a metal bar. Four nurses were injured in that attack, including one who suffered a collapsed lung.
These sensational stories draw attention to what is, or should be, a daily concern in every hospital and clinic in the United States: health care workers’ safety. Studies suggest that health care workers become ill and are injured more than any other major industry sector.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has noted that there are numerous health and safety risks associated with health care facilities, including blood-borne pathogens and biological hazards, potential exposure to chemicals, drugs, and radioactive materials, respiratory hazards, and ergonomic hazards from lifting and repetitive tasks, among others. In addition to doctors and nurses, who may be better educated regarding safety risks in their places of employment and appropriate safety measures, health care facilities employ a wide variety of trades that have health and safety hazards associated with them including mechanical maintenance, medical equipment maintenance, housekeeping, food service, building and ground maintenance, and laundry staff.
Unfortunately, because the focus is often put on patient safety, health care employees’ safety may fall to the wayside. However, improving employee safety has many benefits beyond the obvious, including improved patient safety and financial benefits. The health care industry pays billions of dollars annually in workers compensation and related costs due to employee illnesses and injuries.
It is essential that health care facilities provide programs for improving workplace safety. At a minimum, safety training and education should be provided to new hires and should be reinforced regularly. Some health care facilities form employee safety committees to identify and mitigate potential risks. It is important to remember that every health care facility is different, and so these programs must be tailored to meet the facilities’ individual needs.