Workplace injuries are an all-too-common occurrence in health care, especially for nurses. What can you do to reduce this risk?
In 2020, the healthcare industry had the most instances of injury and illness ever reported, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic played a pivotal role in these dismal statistics, but healthcare workers had one of the highest risks of injury even before the pandemic began.
Whether transferring a patient or running to a code blue, nurses are constantly on the move. In fact, one study revealed that nurses walk more than 9,000 steps in a single shift, which equates to over three miles.
With constant movement and the strenuous physical demands of their roles, nurses are more susceptible to workplace injuries. And while every injury or illness is not avoidable, practicing some of the following habits can help lower the risk.
1. Engage in physical activities
Whether turning patients or dressing wounds, nurses must turn, twist, and move their bodies in uncomfortable or awkward positions. However, these movements can come with consequences.
Studies have shown that nurses have the highest risk of developing work-related musculoskeletal disorders, which can affect joints, muscles, and bones and cause pain and limited mobility.
However, engaging in physical activities can help reduce your chances of developing these conditions. “We lift patients, and if we don’t have enough strength, it could be impossible to do so,” said Georgina Villarreal, MSN, RN, a fitness coach. So doing your best to be healthy, stay in shape, and build muscle are beneficial in preventing workplace injuries. According to the Mayo Clinic, combining aerobic exercises, such as swimming, and strength workouts like weight training can strengthen and stretch your back and abdomen.
It can be challenging to make time for physical activities or find the motivation. That’s why it’s important to make regular physical activity an intentional part of your routine, said Villarreal who is currently on the path to becoming a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach through the National Academy for Sports Medicine.
Being intentional allows you to set and achieve goals and develop a stronger mind-muscle connection, a strategy that gives you more awareness of your body and its movements, she said. For instance, telling yourself, “I’m going to go for a run today,” or “I’m going to watch an online video and do a circuit training,” is giving yourself the intention. Then setting aside 30 minutes or an hour to complete this exercise is putting that intent into action.
Villareal added that practicing fitness this way can help you achieve your personal goals (whether that is losing weight, becoming more flexible, or building muscle) and increase your endurance and strength for work. “At the end of the day, we need strength to do our work as nurses,” she said.
2. Follow safety practices
Healthcare organizations have workplace safety policies and techniques in place for different scenarios, including proper form for patient handling, to prevent workplace injuries. These procedures create safer methods for care that are meant to protect both the nurse and the patient.
Villarreal said that practicing safety protocols and communication — especially when repositioning a patient — are essential to preventing workplace injuries. Oftentimes, injuries occur when nurses feel rushed, according to Villarreal, who has seven years of nursing experience. So before taking on any arduous task, consider that you’re applying good body form, using equipment (e.g., lifting machines, sliding boards, slider sheets) and lift teams, and communicating with your colleagues and your patient.
With challenges like short staffing and limited equipment, it can be difficult to get assistance when you need it. However, doing physical tasks without adequate support or proper safety measures in place can cause more damage. Villarreal described a time when she was a new nurse and helped a patient stand with another colleague.
“I had my arm under her armpit, and I pulled my SI [sacroiliac] joint. I was out for three weeks,” she said. “That was improper form. You’re never supposed to have your hand under someone’s armpit for that exact reason.”
Looking back, she said applying more safety measures may have changed the outcome. “Accidents can happen, but I think taking the extra second to communicate can really prevent it,” she said.
3. Wear comfortable shoes and well-fitted scrubs
From the color of your scrubs to your choice of shoe, what you wear has a purpose in nursing. And while attire can differ from setting or specialty, the functionality stays consistent throughout. Scrubs and shoes help minimize contaminants for both nurses and patients and offer protection from hazards, spills, and falls.
When wearing scrubs, it’s important to make sure they’re breathable, stretchy, and well fitted — not too loose and not too tight. “There have been times where I would run at work if my patient’s alarm was going off,” said Villarreal. “Wearing scrubs that you can run in, squat in, lunge in, and stretch in is so crucial.” In addition, be mindful of how much is in your pockets and what’s around your neck as these could pose a risk as well, she said.
Studies have shown that adequate footwear can reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders and help in preventing workplace injuries. Villarreal suggested when shopping for shoes to take your time and consider elements like grip and comfort. Whether sneakers, clogs, or slip-on shoes, you’re on your feet for hours at a time, so finding shoes that protect and support you is essential.
4. Eat well and stay hydrated
With all the work nurses do, there are certainly barriers to eating well and staying hydrated, including time and accessibility. One study highlighted that healthy food options were limited in facility cafeterias and vending machines. Nurses in the study also felt rushed, so choosing readily available, unhealthy options was the easiest choice.
Eating healthy can be a challenge because it requires planning and dedication. And after working long hours, it may be difficult to find the motivation to cook, plan, and pack. However, meal planning and good nutrition can reduce stress, enhance your health, and increase your energy.
“When you start eating healthier, it gives you power over what you put in your body,” said Villarreal, founder and CEO of Healthcare Strong, a fitness and nutrition coaching program for healthcare workers. If you’re finding it challenging to plan ahead, you can also take small steps through healthier snack options.
When you’re at work and constantly moving, drinking enough water is a must. Dehydration can cause health complications, including fatigue, dizziness, and even seizures, so it’s vital to stay hydrated. “Drinking a half gallon to a gallon of water a day is so beneficial,” she said. “It helps lubricate your joints, it gives you energy, and it helps detox your body.”
5. Get plenty of rest
Research has shown that lack of sleep and inadequate recovery can influence the safety and health of nurses, especially with longer hours, rotating shifts, and fast-paced work settings. However, adequate rest can improve your overall health and help prevent workplace injuries, keeping you safer at work.
The Mayo Clinic suggests practices like creating a calming environment and sticking to a specific sleep schedule to achieve better rest. But if you work odd hours or your schedule rotates, a specific schedule may not be feasible. Committing to at least seven or eight hours of sleep can be a way to adopt this routine.
Physical and mental recovery is another element of getting adequate rest. After work, it’s important to make time for activities that bring you joy and allow you to unwind. This could be as simple as watching TV with your family, walking your dog, using a foam roller to stretch your body, or reading. “When I’m talking about recovery, I’m recovering from all of the stress and trauma from work,” said Villarreal, adding that these types of activities can help you refocus when you’re feeling drained.
Workplace injuries create a ripple effect that impacts your physical and mental health. It’s necessary to take steps to prioritize and protect your well-being on and off the clock.
Learn more about enhancing your physical and mental health through these courses:
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