Healthcare Ergonomics: What is It and Why is It Important?

Caring Enough to Prevent Injury for Those Who Care For Us 

Reducing the Risk of Injury to Healthcare Workers

Healthcare workers (HCWs) are the backbone of the medical industry, and their well-being is crucial to ensuring that patients receive the best care possible. Unfortunately, the risk of injury is a persistent threat in this field. Chronic injuries, particularly sprains and strains of the upper body and back, are the most prevalent among healthcare professionals. A problem that has only been intensified since the onset of COVID-19 due to an increased patient load in hospitals, necessitating more transportation of patients and equipment. This heightened activity comes when the industry is already experiencing a shortage of healthcare professionals, exacerbating the risk of injury. 

Common Injuries

According to a poignant case study in the Perioperative Setting by Gurb and Dockery, which conducted an ergonomic assessment in a 14-room surgical suite, 79% of registered nurses had sustained back injuries, with a significant number of the injuries being career-ending. Surgical technologists and/or assistants accounted for 21% of these injuries.

As the study identified, there are five key activities that contributed to these injuries:

  1. Moving patients
  2. Maneuvering heavy carts
  3. Lifting
  4. Walking on wet floors
  5. Reaching for power outlets

To maintain a functional and effective healthcare system it is crucial that we integrate ergonomic principles into everyday healthcare practices. As we continue to rely on the tireless efforts of HCWs, especially in times of crisis, it is imperative that we invest in their safety and health with the same fervor with which they care for us.

Healthcare Ergonomics Best Practices and Resources

Nursing Home Ergonomics

Many patients in nursing homes are reliant on healthcare providers for basic day-to-day activities. These types of activities put physical strain on healthcare workers – multiple times a day, as they require lifting and transferring patients safely. 

To help avoid healthcare worker injuries, employers should ensure: 

  • Workplace analysis to identify and correct workplace hazards and exposure to ergonomic stressors. 
  • Injury recording and analysis to identify injury patterns, allowing visibility to correct unforeseen risks. 
  • Hazard prevention and control including administrative and engineering controls. Administrative controls ensure adequate staffing and assessment of needs. Engineering controls cover design, training and use of tools and equipment to reduce injuries to healthcare providers, e.g. equipment used to lift patients. 
  • Training programs to ensure continual education is in place and performed by a qualified trainer. Successful training programs confirm that both new and existing employees are up-to-date on ergonomic risks in the workplace. 

Lifting guidelines are particularly relevant for healthcare workers in a nursing home environment. The United States Department of Labor – Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) provides the following lifting guidelines: 

  • Never transfer patients/residents when off balance. 
  • Lift loads close to the body. 
  • Never lift alone, particularly fallen patients/residents, use team lifts or use mechanical assistance. 
  • Limit the number of allowed lifts per worker per day. 
  • Avoid heavy lifting especially with spine rotated. 
  • Training in when and how to use mechanical assistance. 

OSHA also offers recommendations around Patient Handling Programs and Patient Handling Controls.

Laboratory Ergonomics

Laboratories lend themselves towards ergonomic risks due to their focus on efficiency which can distract from safe working practices. There are many resources created by UCLA Ergonomics that offer best practices for healthcare ergonomics in a laboratory setting: 

Recommendations for Pushing and Pulling Tasks

Most healthcare environments possess many large, heavy equipment. This medical equipment must be mobile, so it can be moved where needed across the healthcare facility. Additionally, medical equipment must frequently be maneuvered quickly and safely in a variety of environments (wet, hazardous materials, over cords, etc.). Finally, noise considerations must be considered as patients require rest and cannot be bombarded by noisy equipment constantly being moved around. That’s a tall order for medical equipment designers. 

The AORN Safe Patient Handling Guide provides several task recommendations to mitigate risk for pushing/pulling tasks:

  • Opt for pushing over pulling equipment 
  • Push at a comfortable “middle” height – about 3ft 
  • Use 2 or more caregivers to complete task together 
  • Use powered transport device 
  • Keep casters/wheels clean and well-maintained to assist in moving equipment more easily  

Additionally, Darcor has identified four best practices to assist medical equipment designers to achieve improved design and mobility of medical equipment and carts:

  1. Low push/pull force
  2. Noise reduction
  3. Reduced shock and impact loading
  4. Adjustable height

Investing in healthcare ergonomics is essential as it not only helps mitigate risks for healthcare workers but also greatly improves patient care. To ensure a healthier tomorrow, we must continue to centre ergonomic programs and practices within the healthcare sector and beyond. To learn more about how ergonomics can help you reduce workplace injuries and transform your bottom line check out our latest guide: “The Economics of Ergonomics”!