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Top Medical Workplace Injuries – And Some Tips to Prevent Them

Military personnel getting an N95 Manny Delacruz, a safety specialist at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, assists a sailor with fitting an N95 respirator. NH Jacksonville and Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command Jacksonville won the Chief of Naval Operation’s Award for Achievement in Ashore Safety (large non-industrial command) for Fiscal Year 2019 (Photo by: Jacob Sippel, Naval Hospital Jacksonville).

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Occupational hazards among medical workers can have a big impact on mission readiness.

The top four hazards medical workers face are slips, trips and falls, needle sticks; repetitive motion injuries; and lifting and handling injuries, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Slips, Trips, and Falls

The rate of lost-workday injuries resulting from slips, trips, and falls in hospitals is 90% greater than the average rate for all other private industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Slips, trips, and falls are the second-leading cause of lost-workday injuries in hospitals after overexertion.

Slips, trips, and falls are mostly due to fluid spillage and items left in walking paths (especially electrical cords), said Steve Sinatra,  the lead safety manager at the Defense Health Agency's Occupational Safety Branch.

Tips to avoid these injuries include:

  • Keep hallways clear.
  • Alert maintenance to slippery floors due to spills.
  • Pick up dropped packages or bundles.
  • Wear appropriate non-slip, non-skid footwear, especially in wet areas.
  • Learn how to use ladders and stepstools appropriately for reaching higher items. Never use or stand on a chair with wheels.

Additionally, military medical treatment facilities should ensure the maintenance of exterior walkways, parking lots, and other areas where people may be walking.

Needle Sticks

Needle stick prevention is a priority as medical workers often deal with blood. Blood can carry pathogens. Needles or other sharp objects such as burs and scissors also may expose health care workers to biological hazards, chemicals or drug exposures, and radioactive materials.

Air Force Capt. Lara Poole further explained: "There are many threats that our health care workers face when it comes to providing excellent patient care. One of these threats is needle stick and other sharps injuries," said Poole, who is the public health flight commander, 316th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, Malcolm Grow Medical Clinics & Surgery Center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Needle sticks and injuries from other sharp objects "can potentially expose health care workers to pathogens such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and human immunodeficiency virus (the virus that causes AIDS). These pathogens can pose life-threatening health issues or even a lethal risk to health care workers if left untreated," Poole said.

To prevent sharps and needle stick injuries, keep these tips in mind:

  • Wear goggles, a face shield and double gloves when suturing or administering a needle.
  • Use a needle only one time. Do not recap it. Activate the safety immediately after use.
  • Opt for safe sharps, such as retractable needles, blunt suture needles, safety scalpels, or needleless blood transfer equipment, if available.
  • Empty the sharps container before it is full.
  • Do not leave sharps out where they may injure others.
  • Use mechanical devices to pass sharps. Never pass them by hand.
  • Communicate with your colleagues and use verbal alerts when passing sharps.
  • Keep exposed sharps in view at all times and be aware of anyone around you.
  • Participate in blood-borne pathogen training.

Military personnel wearing protective equipment
Army Reserve Sgt. Larry Moss, a licensed practical nurse assigned to Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force 352-1, puts on personal protective equipment to protect against COVID-19 exposure (Photo by: Army Spc. Joshua Cowden, 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment).

Repetitive Motion Injuries

Repetitive motion injuries (RMIs) or repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) are work-related musculoskeletal disorders that can result from exposure to repetitive and forceful motions.

"In the upper extremities, these actions are commonly seen in fine motor tasks which can be found throughout medical settings such as pipetting, microscope use, manipulation of ultrasound wands, surgical, and other treatment instruments, microtome work in a pathology lab, and near constant use of hand-held technology, computers, and medical equipment," said Kelsey McCoskey, an ergonomist for the Army Public Health Center..

RSI and overuse can be felt in the nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons through repetitive stress micro-tears and inflammation of surrounding soft tissues, McCoskey said. To lessen the chances of developing these injuries, she suggested:

  • Take frequent 30- to 60-second breaks to stretch and change postures.
  • Take many smaller breaks from repetitive tasks rather than one long break.
  • Shift tasks in an effort to use different muscle groups.
  • Keep proper posture at desks.
  • Have an ergonomist review your office or work space.
  • Try to take a break for a minute every 20 minutes or so to stand up, or move your feet, arms and hands in circular motions to promote blood flow and give your muscles a change of routine.

Lifting and Handling Injuries

The constant moving of patients and heavy equipment can take a toll on health care workers' backs and necks.

Identification of these work-related musculoskeletal disorder risk factors and controls to minimize exposure can help reduce the potential for fatigue and discomfort and improve efficiency and effectiveness.

"Many people take manual lifting for granted," Sinatra said "There is a technique to lifting properly, and supervisors must train their personnel on this technique."

His tips for improved safety:

  • Try not to lift something from the floor.
  • Look at the box and see if it has the symbol for a two-person carry.
  • Push the box with your foot to see how manageable it is for you to lift. If you don't feel it's manageable, stop and get help.
  • If it is manageable, get close to the load, bending at the knees, keeping your back straight; then grasp the load with both hands, stand straight up without twisting or turning and pull the load close to your body.
  • Place the load on a device to push it to the destination, instead of carrying. Even using a chair with wheels is better than carrying a heavy box across the room.
  • Remember that nothing beats a lifting device such as a hand truck, patient lifting device (sling), etc., but if you have to lift something, use the proper technique.
  • Get assistance in moving a patient if necessary to do so safely for your and the patient.

"I'm a veteran of three back surgeries and know first-hand about how not being trained in the proper lifting techniques and how it can injure a person for life," Sinatra said.

Other Safety Measures 

Assessing, designing, and modifying work environments to include administrative and engineering controls can help to minimize these exposures.

 McCoskey said: "Engineering controls may include automated medical equipment, equipment designed for adjustability, neutral postures, and low-force requirements, equipment handles that are not too small or too large and fit comfortably in the hand, upper extremity supports, and workstation adjustability to accommodate multiple users."

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