How to protect your caregivers from workplace injuries

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Don Ernst
Don Ernst

When older adults reach a point in their lives when they no longer can take care of themselves, their loved ones often trust senior living communities to help them live out their years in peace and safety.

The caregivers who work in these communities often do so because they are passionate about ensuring that residents are as happy and healthy as possible. Too often, however, caregivers' dedication comes with the price of their own health. And health issues can lead to increased healthcare expenses, a loss of productivity and missed work, affecting both employee and employer.

Let's look at some statistics related to caregiving.

In 2015, almost 172,000 incidents of  recordable injury or illness, or 6.8 incidents per 100 workers, occurred in the private nursing industry. Although this rate was a slight decrease from 2014, it is still one of the highest rates in the nation.

Communities that are under government jurisdiction had an even higher rate, at 12 incidents per 100 workers. That makes caregiving the only sector in all industries, public or private, with a double-digit rate.

Considering all that caregivers do for residents and patients, it makes sense that senior living communities where healthcare services are provided, and skilled nursing centers, are some of the most dangerous workplaces in America and have one of the highest rates of workers' compensation claims. Some of these causes of injuries can be avoided, however, by taking a few simple precautions.

Heavy lifting

Whether lifting boxes of supplies or transporting a resident or patient, caregivers often must lift a lot of weight at one time.

Musculoskeletal injuries are more prevalent in senior care communities than in nearly any other industry across the nation (see nursing home rates here, for instance). Such injuries include pulled or strained muscles, injured tendons and ligaments and even cartilage and joint injury.

Have policies that encourage the use of proper gear, such as a weight belt or a back brace. Otherwise, workers may not wear such gear  because it takes too much time to put on and take off and is perceived as being inconvenient.

Another easy way to prevent musculoskeletal injuries is to provide proper training for your employees. Teach them proper lifting techniques, such as not using too much back muscle to lift a heavy load.

If workers are going to be in an awkward position when caring for a resident, such as bending down to help someone eat or bathe, then help them find more comfortable positions, such as sitting or squatting.

Finally, workers should know that stretching can help alleviate muscle tightness and other issues that otherwise could lead to more serious injuries.

Sick seniors

There is no getting around the fact that elderly residents contract illnesses more easily than others, because their immune systems often are weaker.

Younger caregivers often can fight off these illnesses, but after being exposed to viruses and bacteria more than the average person, something is bound to get through their immune system, causing them to become sick. When you mix in accidental needle sticks and other incidents, the rate of workplace illnesses among healthcare workers across all settings is among the highest of any industry in the nation.

Fortunately, preventing many of these illnesses is quite easy.

The top way to prevent the spread of disease from person to person is by washing hands frequently. Hand sanitizer is a quick solution, but it does not eliminate microbes as well as soap and hot water does.

In addition, if your employees are working with residents or patients who have transmittable illnesses such as the flu, then surgical masks may help prevent the virus from entering employees' bodies. Also, ensuring that your employees are fully vaccinated can drastically cut down on the transmission of viruses.

Make sure your community has policies and training in place covering handwashing, the wearing of surgical masks, and flu and pneumonia vaccination.

Understaffed communities

Owners and operators of senior living communities or a similar facilities often will say that their biggest issue is budgetary constraints. They may need to hire more workers, including nurses or caregivers, but say they simply cannot afford to do so.

Unfortunately, that means that the employees they do have on staff often are overworked. That reality can lead to a myriad of issues, among them stress-induced illnesses, mental and physical, in employees. Over an extended period of time, stress also can lead to loss of sleep and poor eating habits, which contribute to issues such as heart disease and diabetes.

Of course, the best way to prevent such issues would be to hire more employees. Doing so often is not an option, however, and alternatives exist.

Make sure your employees have regular breaks and time to themselves to recuperate and refresh. When they go home after their shifts, communicate to them that they are free to not worry about work anymore (unless they are on call).

When possible, keep shifts between eight to 10 hours. The longer the shift, the more likely mistakes will be made (here's one example from the hospital industry), which could cause harm or injury to both your employees and your residents.

The bottom line is, when people choose careers in nursing or caregiving, they generally know many of the issues they will be facing. They may not be aware of the actual risks that come with such jobs, however. With proper training, equipment and care for your employees, many injuries and illnesses can be avoided.

Don Ernst is a trial attorney who has been representing clients of the Ernst Law Group in San Luis Obispo, CA, for 40 years. He has won more than $100 million on behalf of his clients in that time. Ernst is a former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California and the Central Coast Trial Lawyers Association, which he founded. He has been named to several “best lawyers” lists.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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