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The X-ray of Tove Schuster's spine shows the metal cage and four screws her surgeon used to repair a damaged disk in her back.
When Tove Schuster raced to help a fellow nurse lift a patient at Crozer-Chester Medical Center near Philadelphia in March 2010, she didn't realize she was about to become a troubling statistic.
While working the overnight shift, she heard an all-too-common cry: "Please, I need help. My patient has fallen on the floor."
The patient was a woman who weighed more than 300 pounds. So Schuster did what nursing schools and hospitals across the country teach: She gathered a few colleagues, and they lifted the patient as a team.
"I had her legs — a corner of one of the legs, anyway," says Schuster, who was 43 years old at the time. "And as we swung her up onto the bed, I felt something pop. And I went 'ooo.' "
She finished the shift in pain and drove straight home to bed.
But after Schuster woke up late that afternoon, her husband, Matt, heard her shouting. He says he ran to the bedroom and found her crawling across the floor. "I thought it was a joke at first," he says. "And she says, 'I can't walk.' "
Schuster had injured her back moving the patient, which the hospital acknowledged. And today, X-rays of her back show how a surgeon repaired a damaged disk in her spine using a metal cage and four long, sharp screws.
"I can finally walk and sit again without being in excruciating pain," Schuster says. "But the career I had as a floor nurse is over."
According to surveys by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are more than 35,000 back and other injuries among nursing employees every year, severe enough that they have to miss work.
Nursing assistants and orderlies each suffer roughly three times the rate of back and other musculoskeletal injuries as construction laborers.
In terms of sheer number of these injuries, BLS data show that nursing assistants are injured more than any other occupation, followed by warehouse workers, truckers, stock clerks and registered nurses.
The number one reason why nursing employees get these injuries is by doing their everyday jobs of moving and lifting patients.
BLS surveys first revealed the high rate of injuries among nursing staff in 2006. But an NPR investigation reveals:
- Studies by university and government researchers began to show decades ago that the traditional way hospitals and nursing schools teach staff to move patients — bend your knees and keep your back straight, using "proper body mechanics" — is dangerous.
- Some hospitals, including the Baptist Health System in Florida and medical centers in the Department of Veterans Affairs, report that they have reduced lifting injuries among nursing staff by up to 80 percent — using an approach often called "safe patient handling." They use special machinery to lift patients, similar to motorized hoists that factory workers use to move heavy parts. The hospitals also conduct intensive training among the staff. Yet the majority of the nation's hospitals have not taken similar action. "There are, you know, just a minority of hospitals that are. really moving forward with this," says Carla Luggiero, the senior associate director of federal relations and a lobbyist for the American Hospital Association. "Most of them are very slow to get on the train."
- Many hospital administrators overlook injuries among the nursing staff partly because they're preoccupied with other priorities. Industry sources told NPR that nursing employees have traditionally ranked low in the hospital industry's hierarchy.
"Too many hospital administrators see nursing staff as second-class citizens," says Suzanne Gordon, author of Nursing Against the Odds. "Historically, hospital administrators have viewed nurses as a disposable labor force."
David Michaels, the assistant secretary of Labor who heads the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), says injuries among nursing staff are "a very important issue. It means that workers who are relatively young have to stop working early, in many cases."
But he says OSHA's powers have been so limited by Congress and court decisions that the agency can do little to require hospitals to protect nursing employees.
Michaels says Congress could help prevent widespread injuries by passing a new law. "There's no question: A national law requiring protection in hospitals would protect workers and would result in the reduction in musculoskeletal injuries in hospitals," he says. "A lot of hospitals still believe this old myth that hospitals are safe places to work."
Hospitals Are Not Taking Aggressive Action
Executives who run the nation's hospitals have known for decades that there's an epidemic among their staff — or, at least, they should have known from the medical literature. "Occasionally the complaint is made," warns Nursing: Its Principles and Practice , a textbook published in 1898, "that a nurse has injured her back. in moving a patient."
A nurse and an orderly move a patient from his bed to a bathtub with the aid of an "electric lift" in 1898.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Leap ahead to the early 1990s: Federal researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) started studying why so many nursing staff were hurting their backs. They were stunned by what they learned.
James Collins, a research manager in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research, says before studying back injuries among nursing employees, he focused on auto factory workers. His subjects were "93 percent men, heavily tattooed, macho workforce, Harley-Davidson rider type guys," he says. "And they were prohibited from lifting over 35 pounds through the course of their work."
Nursing employees in a typical hospital lift far heavier patients a dozen or more times every day.
"That was my biggest shock and surprise," Collins says. "And the big deal is, the injuries are so severe that for many people, they're career-ending."
But officials and researchers throughout the health care industry say that most hospitals have not taken aggressive action to protect the nursing staff from lifting injuries.
Luggiero, the American Hospital Association lobbyist, hesitates when asked whether she views injuries among nursing staff as an important issue.
"Well, you know, I do think it's an issue we have to. look at. Do I think it's the most important issue we have to look at? No, I don't," she says. "I mean, we are concerned. We want to make sure our employees are in the best shape possible. So you, know, to that extent. do we care about the issue? Of course we do."
A Case Study
But nursing employees who work for one of America's best-known hospital chains — Kaiser Permanente — told NPR they were getting hurt so often, and their hospitals' managers were doing so little to protect them, that they asked
state officials to investigate.
Kaiser has 38 hospitals in three states, according to the company's website. They consistently win top ratings and awards for the way they take care of patients.
But members of Kaiser's nursing staff say that if you were to peek behind the employees' side of the curtain — at least at Kaiser's hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. — you would see a troubling picture of the way hospital officials have treated them.
There's no evidence that Kaiser Permanente hospitals have higher rates of nursing injuries than any others among the nation's roughly 4,000 acute care hospitals. Actually, there's no good way at all to compare injury rates among most of the nation's hospitals, because the federal and state governments do not require companies to reveal enough details about injured employees to do an analysis.
But NPR focused this story on Kaiser for two main reasons: First, we obtained some of Kaiser's internal documents, which shed rare light on their nurses' injuries. Second, the case shows how injured nursing staff sometimes have to shout to get help.
The Kaiser hospital in Walnut Creek sits prominently on Main Street, about 45 minutes northeast of San Francisco. Ashley Moore, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit, says to understand why nursing employees get injured, it helps to know that they do more than measure patients' blood pressure, hook them up to IVs and assess how patients are faring. Their work is also physically grueling, and the surging rate of obesity is making it worse.
Ashley Moore, a registered nurse who works at a Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. spends time with her children at home. Moore says to understand why nursing employees get injured, it helps to know the physical demands of the job. Talia Herman for NPR hide caption
Ashley Moore, a registered nurse who works at a Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. spends time with her children at home. Moore says to understand why nursing employees get injured, it helps to know the physical demands of the job.
Talia Herman for NPR
"A 250- to 300-pound patient can be very common in our unit. And to even be able to lift their leg is probably 60, 70 pounds maybe," Moore says. "And I can barely lift it myself."
In addition, most patients staying in hospitals today are sicker than the patients of 20 years ago. Hospitals are treating as many people as they can in outpatient clinics, saving inpatient beds for those who most need round-the-clock care. But no matter how sick or heavy they are, there's a push to get them out of bed as soon as possible and moving — even if the patients can't even swing themselves to the edge of the bed.
"So what we do is, we put our arm out, and the patient latches on to your arm and then just pulls, and then we almost do a dance," she says, imitating what it's like to hold up and drag a heavy body and then lower it gently into a chair. "And the next thing you know, their light's on 20 minutes later" because the patient wants to go back to bed — so she has to do it all in reverse.
Moore estimates that she moves patients in much the same way 15 to 20 times each shift. And that, nursing employees say, is how they get hurt.
Despite Some Help, Injuries Continue
NPR talked with 16 nurses and nursing assistants at Kaiser's Walnut Creek hospital who have been injured while lifting patients during the past several years.
One of them is Abigail Velez, who tells the same basic story as many employees. In one incident, she and a colleague were moving a patient, "and when I pulled her up in bed, I felt this searing, burning pain in my shoulder," Velez says.
Nurses at the Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center were getting injured so often that they asked state officials to investigate. Talia Herman for NPR hide caption
Nurses at the Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center were getting injured so often that they asked state officials to investigate.
Talia Herman for NPR
That was just the beginning of her painful medical saga. Velez has so many medical records from Kaiser about her shoulder and elbow injuries that the documents practically cover her dining room table. They show that she went over and over again to Kaiser's staff health unit. Doctors kept giving her pain pills and steroid injections, but little seemed to help.
She says the pain got so intense and her motion was so restricted that she couldn't pick up a glass of water.
"I could not lift my arm. I couldn't even raise it up to brush my hair," she says with exasperation.
Velez eventually had two operations and went on disability leave for eight months.
Velez and other nursing staff told NPR that Kaiser's management did take a few steps toward promoting "safe patient handling." For instance, Kaiser bought some of the same kinds of lifting machines that Baptist Health and VA hospitals use. And Kaiser trained teams of "patient care technicians" to help.
But staff like Moore, the ICU nurse, say they kept warning Kaiser's managers that while the steps seemed good on paper, they often did not work. When the nurses would need a lifting machine to move a patient, they would discover that some other unit had borrowed it, or it was stuck behind cleaning equipment in a distant closet. Or the machine's battery was dead. And when they would urgently request a lift team, they would learn that none was available because the team members had been reassigned to other duties.
"Every day you call and say, 'We don't have anybody to help us,' " Moore says. "And again it would be the same thing every single day, being jerked around. And by the end of the day, nobody ever came to help us."
NPR obtained documents that corroborate that. For example, five nursing employees signed a memo to management on Nov. 13, 2011: "No lift team. Unable to turn patients due to no available workers." Another memo a few days later: "No lift team." And another memo: "ICU patients are in excess of 3 to 400 pounds. No lift team."
Meanwhile, Kaiser managers were keeping their own records that showed employees kept getting hurt. Federal law requires businesses to keep records via Form 300 — the "Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illness." The law does not require companies to make those logs public, but NPR obtained some of the logs that Kaiser kept on Walnut Creek. For example, an entry dated Jan. 21, 2012, lists an incident affecting a nurse's aide: "back injury while performing daily job duties of lifting." Another entry the same day records an incident involving a registered nurse: "low back injury while assisting with a patient in the ICU."
Leesa Evans was another employee listed on that injury log. Evans, a registered nurse, remembers the exact moment that lifting a patient changed her life. It was midday on Oct. 3, 2010, and the patient was dying from congestive heart failure.
Leesa Evans, a registered nurse, injured her back while assisting a patient. Talia Herman for NPR hide caption