Back pain hits nurses hard and drives absences. Can employers help?
By Mary Bevan, RN, BSN
Nurses care. It’s who they are, what they do—and unfortunately, it can hurt them.
RNs experience some of the highest injury and illness rates in health care/social services, a field where such incidents are already higher than average.
Over-exertion/bodily reaction causes the most occupational injuries and illnesses among nurses, according to a 2018 study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Healthcare human resources and benefits administrators find this prevalent occupational hazard challenging for several reasons. Nurses are the largest employee block in healthcare, says the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the BLS, and maintaining nurse staffing levels has been a long-time challenge. And while uncomplicated back pain usually resolves quickly (70% to 90% experience improvement within 7 weeks), MDGuidelines states that the 1-year and 2-year recurrence rates are 62% and 80%, respectively, making back injuries a risk for repeated absences from work.
That’s a lot of downtime for critical healthcare professionals and the people who depend on them. The good news: Prevention and supportive work areas can help nurses avoid future injuries.
Reinjury is a frequent risk, so education and training about safer work practices for lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling can help decrease or prevent recurrence. By re-examining transitional return-to-work opportunities, healthcare employers can help nurses return to work sooner and reduce the risk of reinjury and costs associated with loss of work and leaves of absence.
After a return to work, “individuals with severe acute lumbar pain whose normal work duties require extensive lifting or bending may benefit from temporary reassignment to lighter or sedentary duties, with a scheduled decrease in these activity guidelines over time,” according to the Lumbar Spine Guideline in MDGuidelines
Healthcare employers can also help nurses to stay healthy by reinforcing awareness with training in ergonomics and proper lifting form. OSHA offers resources to help hospitals and other care settings to develop and implement safe patient handling assessments, policies, procedures, programs, training, and patient education.
Safe, ergonomic patient handling starts with training and education in academic and institutional settings. It also requires healthcare employers and clinical leaders to equip patient-care staff with tools and resources (such as gait belts and lifting aids) to enable them to adjust the physical demand/load during patient handling.
An RN returning to a care setting may require accommodations to avoid risk of re-injury. That may mean working in an area with reduced patient handling, or lower acuity in an ambulatory setting—for example, temporary rotations in a pre- or post-operative setting or outpatient surgery may be more appropriate initial duty assignments upon return to work. Rest periods are important to treatment and prevention, so nurses should balance standing and sitting when they’re back on the job after a low-back injury. Some clinicians may recommend wearing a lumbosacral support. Employer considerations may include whether the post-injury period requires a prescription that may affect the ability to provide safe patient care.
Protecting the health of nurses not only helps nurses, but also helps employers to reduce employee leaves of absence due to a common injury, keeping valued team members on the job.