Healthcare Workers Face Risks on the Job

Healthcare Includes a Broad Range of Occupations

Nurse working with technology in operating room

The healthcare industry employs about 18 million workers in the United States. It is the fastest-growing sector in the American economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that healthcare occupations will grow 14 percent in ten years (from 2018 to 2028). 

While the healthcare industry affords employment opportunities to vast numbers of workers, it also creates workplace hazards. Healthcare has one of the highest rates of occupational injuries and illnesses. According to OSHA, healthcare and social service workers experienced 582,800 incidences of illness or injury in 2017, more than workers in any other industry.

Meaning of Healthcare

OSHA defines healthcare as the provision of health services to individuals. These services may be provided directly or directly and in various settings.  For instance, workers may provide healthcare services in hospitals, dental offices, or surgery centers. Other workers may visit patients' homes.

The BLS divides healthcare workers into two major occupational groups:

  • Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations
  • Healthcare Support Occupations.

The first group includes physicians, physical therapists, dietitians, veterinarians, and other workers who provide professional or technical healthcare services. The second group consists of workers that provide supportive services. Examples are home health aides, dental assistants, and massage therapists.

Workplace Hazards

Healthcare workers face a broad range of work-related hazards. The CDC separates these into three broad categories:

  • 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.
  • Chemical Hazards. Chemical hazards include cleaning agents, drugs, and materials used in laboratories such as fixative for tissue specimens. 
  • Physical Hazards. Many healthcare workers sustain musculoskeletal disorders while lifting patients or performing repetitive tasks. Other physical hazards include X-rays, lasers, radioactive materials, and workplace violence.

Drugs used to treat patients may be toxic to workers. Some may be dispensed in pill form while others are administered as liquids, gases or aerosols.

Hazards Vary by Occupation

The specific hazards workers face depend on the type of work they perform. Here are some examples.

Hospital Workers

Hospitals employ many types of workers, including medical professionals, maintenance workers, and food service employees. Because hospital employees perform physical work, they suffer more on-the-job injuries and illnesses than workers employed in other high-hazard occupations like manufacturing and construction. Their injuries tend to be costly.

The BLS analyzed data regarding injuries sustained by hospital workers in 2015. It determined that the 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 U.S. population is aging so home healthcare workers are in high demand. These workers assist patients with activities like bathing, dressing, and moving from place to place. They are highly prone to sprain and strain injuries from lifting patients. Home healthcare workers face many other risks that can cause occupational injuries. Examples are bloodborne pathogens, biological hazards, animal bites, domestic violence, slips and falls, and driving accidents.

Because they work in patients' homes, home healthcare workers have little control over their work environment.

Nursing Home Workers

While workers in nursing and residential care facilities face many of the same risks as hospital workers, they are particularly prone to workplace violence. According to the CDC, a quarter of all workplace assaults take place in nursing and residential care homes. The most frequently assaulted workers are nurse aides. The perpetrator is often an elderly resident with dementia or another brain disease. Many attacks are not reported so the actual number of incidents is probably higher than the statistics indicate.

Preventing Injuries

At many healthcare institutions, workplace safety and patient safety are closely related goals. When patients are safer, employees are safer as well. Moreover, 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 healthcare employers can take to control the three safety risks outlined below.

Patient Handling

For healthcare workers, musculoskeletal disorders are a major source of injury. Many workers are injured while lifting, moving, or repositioning patients. The most common types of injuries are sprains and strains involving the shoulders or lower back.

Employers can help prevent musculoskeletal disorders by minimizing or eliminating manual lifting. There are many types of ergonomic devices that facilitate the movement of patients. Examples are slide boards, wheelchairs, and mechanical lists. Employers can find tips, tools, and resources regarding safe patient handling on OSHA's website.

Infection Control

Healthcare workers may be exposed to many types of infectious diseases on the job. The primary routes of transmission 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 the air. These particles may be distributed via air currents.

Healthcare employers can protect workers from infectious diseases by instituting an infection control program. Controlling infections is a complex task. Employers can find detailed information on this subject on the CDC's Infection Control webpage.

Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is an occupational hazard for many healthcare workers. It includes acts or threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. Employers can protect their workers by instituting a workplace violence prevention program. More information on workplace violence is available on OSHA's workplace violence webpage.