Staff members of senior living and care communities, depending on state regulations, can be exposed to more risks than many other caregivers, especially as they lift, reposition and transfer residents who may have limited mobility.

Caregivers also can feel enormous pressure to do no harm as they care for residents, and this excessive caution often can leave them at risk for injury. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees at residential care facilities and nursing facilities — where a large proportion of residents and patients need assistance with mobility — have even more injuries, resulting in days away from work than hospital workers. 

Having a safe resident / patient-handling program is the most effective way to reduce the risk of workplace injuries in senior living and care communities, and by doing so, to cut down on costs in the long run. Although wage replacement often accounts for the largest share of workers’ compensation claims related to resident / patient handling, indirect costs also are associated with these injuries; they are less visible on a balance sheet but still affect the bottom line. At a time when staffing shortages are all too common, many of these indirect costs — such as employee turnover, overtime and worker productivity effects — can become particularly troublesome.

Many states have enacted laws that cover safe resident / patient handling, so creating a program that follows the state law is step one. The next step for decision-makers looking to implement a safe resident / patient handling program, is to consider the following best practices, keeping in mind state requirements that effect resident service and care provision.

  1. Invest in the proper equipment. Equipment challenges are a common cause of unsuccessful safe resident / patient handling programs. Not only is it essential to have proper equipment; it’s also important to ensure you have enough of it and that it is easily accessible (including slings for the equipment on all shifts). Equipment should contain tools appropriate for various types of resident / patient-handling tasks, such as equipment that can lift someone from the floor after a fall. Even if the dangers of a particular task aren’t immediately apparent, that doesn’t mean equipment isn’t necessary. For example, manual lifting can cause micro-injuries to the spine, which, over time, can result in a debilitating injury. 
  2. Consistent training and monitoring. Proper equipment doesn’t do anyone any good if employees don’t know how to use it. Offer equipment training upon hire, annually, and as deemed necessary in between annual trainings (especially if an injury has occurred). Training should include a hands-on demonstration as well as details on when and how to report injuries. Additionally, managers and supervisors should be monitoring regularly to ensure that safety protocols are being followed, holding employees accountable for the safest ways to carry out their tasks even if they might seem to take more time.
  3. Preventive maintenance. Scheduling preventive maintenance on all equipment helps avoid a wide variety of potential challenges. Conduct needs assessments for additional or new equipment; every resident has unique characteristics and mobility capabilities that should be assessed on a regular basis. Don’t forget to build funding for purchases into the budget.
  4. Safety culture. A culture of safety lays the groundwork for a successful safe resident / patient-handling program. Establish a safety-first culture that starts with leadership and filters through all levels. Buy-in from the executive team is essential to sustaining any positive cultural changes. According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, CEOs can indirectly influence an organization’s safety climate and employee injuries.
  5. Safe resident / patient-handling committee. Include a safe resident / patient-handling committee as part of your program. Invite frontline employees to join the committee, and encourage their input. Once policies and procedures have been communicated with the staff, establish frequent checkpoints throughout the year and consequences for not following these procedures.  

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders – including muscle strains and low back injuries, rotator cuff injuries (shoulder problems) and tendinitis – are top causes of “lost workday” injuries for healthcare workers, particularly in residential care facilities and nursing homes, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these injuries are cumulative — that is, they worsen over time — so steps such as the aforementioned ones can minimize risks and offer substantial benefits for both caregivers and executives in the form of less severe injuries, less time away from work and a healthier workforce and bottom line.