BOSTON, Mass – The Joint Committee on Public Health voted this week to give HB4039, An Act Relative to Safe Patient Handling in Certain Health Facilities, a favorable report advancing efforts to prevent thousands of debilitating injuries suffered by nurses and other health care workers caused by inadequate practices and equipment for moving patients in hospitals and nursing homes. The legislation was filed by Senate Majority Leader Harriette L. Chandler (D-Worcester) and Representative Claire D. Cronin (D-Easton).
As health care workers in Massachusetts move patients – each lifting 1.8 tons during an average shift – they are being injured at precipitous rates. According the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics health care workers are injured on the job more than those in any other profession. 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. In 2010 alone, an estimated 1,000 Massachusetts health care workers suffered patient handling injuries so severe that they resulted in 59 years of missed days of work, according to the DPH report.
Solutions have been proposed by both a state task force and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and 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 to suppress a Department of Public Health report detailing SPH recommendations for more than a year.
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 Punnett, a member of the task force, said the report was given to DPH in 2013, but remained unpublished until December 2014, as the MHA conveyed concerns about “the implications of these recommendations.”
Hospitals incur significant direct and indirect costs due to these injuries, but comprehensive SPH programs that use equipment to minimize or eliminate the manual handling of patients are successful at reducing both injuries and cost, according to the report. Facilities that implement SPH programs recoup their initial financial investment within 1 to 4 years.
Yet most Massachusetts health care facilities have done little or nothing to address this problem. Only 44 percent (37) of the 88 hospitals surveyed by the task force reported having a written SPH program in place. The report also showed that policies varied from hospital to hospital.
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 who has been advocating for safe patient handling improvements since a career-derailing injury 25 years ago.
“Implementing these policies and using this equipment will save millions of dollars and many thousands of lost work days for workers injured from unsafe patient handling practices,” said Piknick, a Cape Cod Hospital RN. “The DPH report specifies a number of steps that hospitals should take to ensure the safety of workers. As is shown in the DPH report, the industry has failed to address this issue, and many employers voice reluctance to address the problem without strong regulation.”
The measure approved by the Public Health Committee includes components that match virtually every SPH recommendation made by the DPH task force.
“Here in Massachusetts we’re used to being a leader in health care, not an outlier,” said MA Senate Majority Leader Harriette L. Chandler. “The lack of appropriate safe patient handling protocols is sidelining health care workers, increasing costs and putting patients in jeopardy. Implementing safe patient handling practices will reduce work related injuries, decrease unsafe handling variability across health care facilities, create standards for measuring outcomes and protect patients. I am very pleased that the Public Health Committee has reported this bill out of committee favorably as we take another step towards protecting our health care workforce.”
The bill now moves the Joint Committee on Health Care Finance.