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Legislation targets health care worker injuries, comp claims

Legislation targets health care worker injuries, comp claims

Lawmakers are working to reduce injuries caused by lifting patients and equipment in the health care industry, which has more occupational musculoskeletal disorders than most other sectors.

In Massachusetts, S. 1124 and H. 4039 would require health care facilities to establish a committee, or identify an existing committee, to design and oversee a safe patient handling policy and program.

The state's Joint Committee on Public Health last week gave the measure a favorable report and referred it to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

Though safe patient handling laws already exist in states such as California and New York, the health care and social assistance sector had a musculoskeletal disorder incidence rate of 121.3 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2014, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That is the highest among the private industry sectors with greater than 100,000 cases.

Also pending is the Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act, or S. 2408 and H.R. 4266, which Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced last year in Congress. The bill would require the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop and implement a standard prohibiting health care workers from manually lifting patients, among other provisions.

Sources say such legislation can help reduce the frequency and severity of workers compensation claims among health care employees, who each lift an estimated 3,600 pounds per shift, according to the American Nurses Association.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association said about 1,000 workers in Massachusetts hospitals suffered musculoskeletal injuries in 2010, with about 70% missing at least five days of work. The association was part of a patient handling task force that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health convened last year.

“Safe patient handling practices required under the law we are proposing have been shown to dramatically reduce and to prevent these injuries, saving the work lives of thousands of nurses, and saving the health care system millions of dollars in lost productivity, medical costs and the cost of replacing injured workers,” the association spokesman said in a statement.

The Massachusetts bill is “encouraging” since it could help alleviate one the top drivers of health care employee injuries and workers comp costs, said Dr. Andrew I.S. Vaughn, medical director of the occupational and environmental safety division of preventive, occupational and aerospace medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“While the benefits to staff of avoiding injury are obvious, the improvement in patient safety and outcomes, as well as the direct medical and indemnity cost savings for the institution, are very significant,” he said in an email.

While implementing a program or policy can establish leadership's commitment to safe patient handling and mobility, it can't ensure a “program works or is successful, as that requires informed and supported people,” Lori A. Severson, vice president and senior loss control consultant at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Denver, said in an email.

Ms. Severson said that while her hospital, assisted living and long-term care clients already have some type of safe patient handling and mobility policy in place, they are having “varying degrees of success.”

For example, hospitals in large systems tend to be the most successful due to their ability to finance the necessary equipment, while home care organizations, which have “some of the greatest risk/exposures,” are often the least successful “due to the uncontrolled home work environment and a perception of having no funding,” she said.

Still, employers typically see “significant claim frequency reductions and cost reductions” within a year of implementing a program, Ms. Severson said.

“There are still many (health care) employers who have no (safe patient handling and mobility) program in place today, and have no professional safety staff in their systems, and rely on (human resource) professionals and others to manage occupational safety and work comp,” Ms. Severson said. “There is a lot of work still for us to do.”

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