The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) has launched a new educational web resource with materials designed “to help hospitals prevent worker injuries, assess workplace safety needs, enhance safe patient handling programs, and implement safety and health management systems.” OSHA asserts that hospitals can be one of the most hazardous places to work. In fact, in 2011, U.S. hospitals recorded almost twice the rate of work-related injuries and illnesses as private industry as a whole. In terms of lost-time case rates, it is more hazardous to work in a hospital than in construction or manufacturing, two industries that are traditionally thought to be relatively hazardous. While hospitals have reduced the rate of injuries over time, they have not done so as effectively as other industries.

Healthcare employers should take notice because, in addition to the trauma of injuries to employees, worker injuries and illnesses can be very expensive in the form of costs to investigate accidents, increased use of employee healthcare benefits, workers’ compensation to cover lost wages and medical costs, temporary staffing, backfilling and overtime needed when an injured employee misses work, turnover costs when an injured employee quits or is permanently disabled, and productivity and morale decrease as employees become physically and emotionally fatigued, to name a few.

Hospital workers face unique and serious hazards. For instance,

  • Hospital workers lift, reposition, and transfer patients who have limited mobility. Larger patients can pose particular challenges for safe handling.
  • Workers may be near potentially contagious patients and sharp devices contaminated with bloodborne pathogens.
  • Hospitals serve patients with physical or mental health challenges, some of which increase the likelihood of violent outbursts.

Similar hazards exist in nursing and residential care facilities.

Nearly half of hospital workplace injuries resulting in days away from work involved “overexertion or bodily reaction,” often related to patient handling. Manual lifting not only endangers workers, it also puts patients at risk for falls, fractures, bruises, and skin tears. Caregiver fatigue, injury, and stress are also tied to other hazards, such as a higher risk of medication errors and patient infections. In addition to the special challenges of healthcare workers, hospitals face diverse safety challenges associated with food services, materials handling, maintenance, cleaning, office work, and various other functions required to keep hospitals running.

Injuries account for 93% of recorded cases, while illnesses account for only 7% of recorded cases. It is believed that illnesses are under-reported relative to injuries, however, in part because they are often not identified as work-related. OSHA “days away” data tends to undercount needlestick punctures, exposure to tuberculosis or other communicable diseases, and other events that might have serious consequences even when they do not cause the injured worker to miss work immediately.

While most hospitals have systems or programs in place for employee safety and health, the statistics show there is a lot of room for improvement. OSHA has given particular attention recently to worker health and safety in hospitals.