Healthcare Workers Face Risks on the Job

Medical technician holding vial of blood

About 18,000 workers in the United States are employed in the healthcare industry. Healthcare is the fastest growing industry in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The healthcare industry added 379,000 jobs in 2016 and 300,000 the following year. The BLS expects employment in healthcare to grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026.

Meaning of Healthcare

OSHA defines healthcare as the provision of health services to individuals, either directly or directly. These services may be provided in various locations such as hospitals, dental offices, and patients' homes. In 2015, about 43 percent of healthcare workers were employed in ambulatory care according to the BLS. This category includes physicians' offices, laboratories, outpatient care facilities, and home healthcare services. Approximately 36 percent were employed by hospitals while the remaining 21 percent worked in nursing and residential care facilities.

Workplace Hazards

While the healthcare industry provides numerous jobs, it creates many types of hazards for workers. The CDC has identified three broad categories of exposures that healthcare workers face.

  • Infectious Agents. Healthcare workers may be exposed to disease-causing pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Pathogens transported by blood can cause serious diseases like hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, swine flu, and Ebola fever.
  • Drug and Chemical Hazards. A wide variety of chemicals are used in healthcare settings and many can be hazardous to workers. Examples are anti-cancer medications and drugs that are administered in the form of gases or aerosols. Chemical hazards include cleaning and sanitizing agents, and substances used in medical laboratories.
  • Physical Hazards. Workers may be injured by performing repetitive tasks or while moving patients. Other physical hazards include X-rays, lasers, radioactive materials, and workplace violence.

The specific hazards workers face depend on the type of work they perform. For example, hospital nurses are prone to strains or sprains from lifting patients while laboratory workers are subject to injuries from exposure to harmful chemicals.

Hospital Workers

According to the BLS, workers employed at private hospitals suffer more on-the-job injuries and illnesses than those employed in other hazardous occupations like manufacturing and construction. Moreover, injuries sustained by hospital workers tend to be costly.

A review of 2015 injury data by the BLS indicated that two most common causes of injuries for workers in hospitals (other than psychiatric facilities) were lifting or moving patients, and slips and falls. For workers employed at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, the most common cause of injuries was workplace violence.

Home Healthcare Workers

The aging of the U.S. population has made home healthcare one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. The BLS has projected that home healthcare jobs will increase by 40 percent from 20016 to 2026.

The patients served by home healthcare workers are generally elderly, disabled, or convalescent. Many need help with day-to-day activities like bathing, dressing, and moving from place to place. Home healthcare workers are situated in patients' homes, so they don't have access to ceiling lifts, slings, and other patient-moving devices that are used in hospitals. Because they often move patients manually, they are prone to sprain and strain injuries. They may also be injured by animals, domestic violence, slips and falls, and driving accidents.

Nursing Home Workers

While workers in nursing and residential care facilities face many of the same risks as hospital workers, such as strains and sprains, they are particularly prone to workplace violence. A quarter of all workplace assaults take place in nursing and residential care homes.

A report by the CDC indicates that nurse aids in nursing homes are the most frequently assaulted workers in the U.S. The perpetrator is often an elderly resident with dementia or another brain disease. Nurse aids may also be also attacked by residents' family members. Many attacks are not reported. Thus, the actual number of incidents is likely higher than national statistics indicate.

Preventing Injuries

In recent years, many healthcare institutions have improved their quality of care in an effort to enhance patient safety. When patients are safer, employees are safer as well. Workers are more apt to take safety precautions on the job when they believe their employer is committed to maintaining a safe workplace. Here are some steps employers can take to control some key risks faced by healthcare workers.

Proper Patient Handling

Healthcare workers have a higher rate of musculoskeletal injuries than workers in most other industries. Many of these injuries are caused by the lifting, moving, or repositioning of patients. The most common types of injuries are sprains and strains involving the shoulders or lower back.

To prevent injuries, employers should minimize or eliminate manual lifting as much as possible. This can be accomplished by identifying the types of movements that are most likely to cause injuries and then providing assistive devices.

Many types of ergonomic devices are available that can help prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Examples are slide boards, wheelchairs, and shower chairs. Workers must be instructed how and when to use such devices. The CDC provides a detailed explanation of the use ergonomics to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. The article is intended for nursing homes but is relevant to other healthcare facilities as well.

Infection Control

Healthcare workers may be exposed to many types of infectious diseases on the job. The primary modes of transmission, according to the CDC, are contact, droplets, and airborne particles. Contact may be direct (touching an infected patient) or indirect (touching an infected item like a door handle). Droplets may be created when an infected patient coughs or sneezes. Airborne transmission occurs when very small particles remain suspended in air over a period of time. The particles may be blown around a building by air currents.

To protect workers from infectious diseases, healthcare employers must institute an infection control program. The program should address issues such as hand washing, sanitation, personal protective equipment, and disposal of needles and other sharps. Infection control is a complex issue. Employers can find detailed information on controlling infectious diseases at OSHA's website. 

Proper Handling of Hazardous Materials

For workers in a healthcare setting, hazardous materials include chemicals, drugs, substances (such as latex) that can cause allergies, and physical agents like radiation. Any of these materials can cause injuries if not properly handled. OSHA provides separate instructions for handling each of the following:

  • Chemicals such as ethylene oxide and formaldehyde
  • Hazardous drugs like anesthetic gases
  • Radiation
  • Latex allergies

Controlling Workplace Violence

OSHA defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. Workplace violence includes threats, verbal abuse, assaults, and homicides. One of the best protections against workplace violence, according to OSHA, is a zero-tolerance policy. The policy should apply to workers, patients, visitors and anyone else who comes into contact with employees.

OSHA provides detailed instructions for employers on how to evaluate their workplace and develop a workplace violence prevention plan. A violence prevention plan can stand on its own or be incorporated into a safety and health plan, procedures manual, or employee handbook.