CANTON, Mass. – State occupational health experts this week told one of the most respected patient safety groups in the country that the high rate of health care employee injuries in Massachusetts is creating excessive costs that can be reduced if employers implement safe patient handling practices
The Department of Public Health presentation – to Burlington-based Massachusetts Coalition for the Prevention of Medical Errors – described the injuries as a “significant burden” to the health care field, noting that about 1,000 cases per year add up to more than 21,500 lost days. In 2010 alone, Massachusetts health care workers suffered patient handling injuries so severe that they resulted in 59 years of missed days of work.
Only 44 percent of the state’s hospitals have policies in place to prevent patient handling injuries, according to a DPH task force report the state experts used in their presentation. More than 70 percent of employers cite the time involved in implementing safe patient handling practices as the key barrier to providing necessary equipment to workers to prevent these injuries.
The reluctance of hospitals to act on their own makes it clear Massachusetts needs a legislative remedy to this problem, according to Beth Piknick, a past president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Cape Cod Hospital RN who has been advocating for safe patient handling improvements since a career-derailing injury 25 years ago. An Act relative to safe patient handling in certain health facilities (S.1124/H.1914) is pending before the state legislature. The bill’s components match virtually every SPH recommendation made by the DPH task force.
“Implementing these policies and using this equipment will save millions of dollars and more thousands of lost work days for workers injured from unsafe patient handling practices,” said Piknick. “The DPH report specifies a number of steps that hospitals should take to ensure the safety of workers. As is shown in this report, the industry has failed to address this issue, and many employers voice reluctance to address the problem without strong regulation.”
Members of the DPH’s Occupational Health Surveillance Program quoted The Joint Commission in its presentation Monday to the coalition as they described the findings of the DPH report. They noted the data provides a “largely consistent & compelling picture” about patient handling injuries being costly but preventable.
“In healthcare, the primary ethical imperative is ‘First, do no harm,” according to The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits more than 21,000 U.S. health care organizations. “Although we have traditionally applied this obligation to our patients, this monograph helps to establish it also as our obligation to those with whom we work – and to all within the care setting.”
As health care workers in Massachusetts move patients – each lifting 1.8 tons during an average shift – they are being injured at precipitous rates. In Massachusetts, they are twice as likely to be injured as those in other industries and suffer from patient handling injuries at a rate 70 percent higher than those in other states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the hospital industry refuses to take action. In fact, as documented in an alarming report by WGBH News, the Massachusetts Hospital Association actively worked for more than a year to suppress the DPH report detailing safe patient handling recommendations.
WGBH reported last February that Laura Punnett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Department of Work Environment, raised concerns about how a report by the Massachusetts Hospital Ergonomics Task Force was dealt with after being submitted to DPH. Punnett, a member of the task force, said the report was given to DPH in 2013, but remained unpublished until December 2014, as the MHA conveyed concerns about “the implications of these recommendations.” The DPH report was made public only after the pressure exerted by WGBH’s investigation.
The Massachusetts Coalition for the Prevention of Medical Errors is a public-private partnership whose mission is to improve patient safety and eliminate medical errors in Massachusetts. Its membership includes consumer organizations, state agencies, hospitals, professional associations for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, as well as long-term care, health plans, employers, policymakers, and researchers.