When we’re sick, we can often count on nurses to take care of us. But it turns out that care is taking its toll on nurses. Health professionals have the highest rate of back, shoulder and other similar injuries of any field — more than construction workers or people who lift boxes in warehouses. NPR news is beginning a multiweek series of stories on the subject today. As it begins, we took a look at how health professionals here in Massachusetts are doing.
“A munchkin! You want to be a munchkin?" she asks him. You don’t want to be a lion? What does a lion say?"
"And what does he need?"
At 58, she’s a young grandmother. But because of chronic back problems, she can’t pick up Hunter or his brother.
"It’s heartbreaking," Weir said. "They run over to you. I’ll crunch down, but I could never pick them up from that position, and that … that’s sad."
Weir was a nurse for 20 years and she says all that time lifting and moving patients took a toll on her back.
"You know, it was just a cumulative effect, I guess you’d call it," she said. "I kind of just started feeling like, 'Ooh, what is that, ooh, what is that.'"
She wound up herniating a disc, and went back to work after surgery. Then it happened again while she was lifting a patient’s leg.
"And their leg is like dead weight, because they just had surgery and can’t really help you," she said. "And then it went 'Pop. Boom.' And I just said oh my god, I did it again."
After that injury, she had to leave her job. Today, 13 years later, the pain is constant.
"I think there are a lot more injuries out there that go unnoticed, or people just don’t talk about," she said. "I wasn’t the only one injured on that unit that needed surgery."
“It’s really ironic, actually, because many of us go to hospitals to get better, but actually in Massachusetts, hospital workers are the single largest group of people with workplace illnesses and injuries every year," said Laura Punnett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Department of Work Environment. "It’s not uncommon for studies to show anywhere between one-third and two-thirds of healthcare workers to have musculoskeletal problems."
Those include back, neck and shoulder injuries. Punnett says safety guidelines already limit the amount of weight nurses should lift to 50 pounds.
“And obviously if you’re lifting another adult human being, you’re holding a lot more than that weight in your hands," she said. "So the biomechanics load on your back can be quite substantial."
And it’s only getting worse as hospitals see heavier patients. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2,800 healthcare workers in private hospitals in Massachusetts missed work in 2013 because of a musculoskeletal injury. And support positions like aids and orderlies were four times more likely to miss work because of this kind of injury than the average worker.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
At Beth Israel Deaconnnes Medical Center, nurse Kendra Conlon demonstrates a mechanical lift that can help move patients like Lester Macklin, who’s lying on top of a green sheet with straps clipped to a pulley. It’s almost like a hammock. Once all the clips are connected, she hits a button.
"And up we go," she said. "Try and keep your chin tucked.”
Macklin is slowly lifted out of bed until he’s fully suspended. Beth Israel has spent $2 million on these kinds of lifts. And Conlon says it’s made things a lot easier.
"It made us have a lot more confidence in our ability to get people out of bed safely, and to keep people safe during the transfers and things like that," she said.
Macklin says if he needs help moving, especially at night when there might only be one nurse available, it’s good to know that a single nurse can help him.
"You feel safe," she said. "That’s what I think is very important. The patient feels safe.”
Physical therapist Jacki Chechile was tasked with changing the culture at the hospital, to get staff to start using the lifts.
"We’ve actually seen a pretty dramatic reduction in employee injuries, as well as the cost of those injuries," Chechile said. "So since 2010, about a 40 percent reduction in patient handling injuries, which is huge."
And yet, according to a survey, patient lifts are relatively rare in Massachusetts hospitals. Two-thirds of intensive care units don’t have them. And a third of hospitals don’t even have a protocol for safe patient handling.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has been pushing for a state law requiring hospitals to adopt safe patient handling protocols, including the use of lifts.
"It seems to me that it’s a no brainer," said MNA associate director Christine Pontus. "From the perspective of keeping workers going and saving on workers’ comp, and changing things slowly, no one’s saying they have to do things overnight. It would be a slow, graduated process. That’s what we’re asking for in the legislation: you begin the process. And some have, and some will not unless they’re forced to."
That legislation has languished on Beacon Hill over the last decade, at least in part because of opposition from the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
In testimony submitted to a legislative committee in 2013, the hospital association called the bill expensive and impractical, because its provisions "require a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into account different hospital types and sizes."
The hospital association also pointed out that a task force was already developing recommendations for safe patient handling. Punnett was on that task force, and says they submitted their report to the Department of Public Health in 2013. More than a year later, the DPH had yet to publish it. Punnett says she asked then-DPH associate commissioner Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo what the holdup was.
"Dr. Biondolillo essentially conveyed that there was some concern on the part of the Massachusetts Hospital Association about the implications of these recommendations, and she wanted to move one step at a time in deciding how this report could be issued.
Biondolillo no longer works for the DPH, and officials from the department refused to comment for this story. The Massachusetts Hospital Association didn’t respond to questions either, but issued a statement saying patient and employee safety is a top priority.
After WGBH News inquired about the report, it was finally published. It recommends the implementation of safe patient handling programs at hospitals in the state.
For Chris Weir, any delay in addressing the problem is too much.
"We’re trying to make a living," she said. "We’re out there doing our job, we’re getting hurt and if there’s a way we can reduce the number of injuries, why is it taking so long?"
A bill that would require safe patient handling programs at hospitals has once again been introduced in the legislature.
Watch the Greater Boston segment: