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Unsafe at any weight: back injuries from lifting patients

History shows that the prevailing views of safety-conscious behavior can be radically wrong.

For example, half a century ago Ralph Nader published his provocative expose of design dangers in American automobiles. It was called "Unsafe at any Speed" - and helped point the way to the installation of seat belts and other quantum leaps forward in car safety.

In this post, we will discuss how the techniques that nurses and other patient handlers have historically been taught are also in need of radical improvements. Researchers are showing that moving patients is inherently unsafe to workers' backs, no matter how good their lifting techniques are

Spine injury research

The standard view has long been that if a worker keeps his or her back straight and remembers to bend at the knees and hips, he or she should be able to avoid injury. Safety is supposedly all about using proper body mechanics.

The Spine Research Institute at The Ohio State University has conducted sophisticated research that shows how flawed this view is. The truth is that no matter how good your body mechanics are, if you are a nurse lifting a patient - especially a heavy patient - you are likely to hurt your back.

In other words, lifting patients manually is unsafe to your back, no matter how good your technique is. Using ceiling hoists or other equipment is necessary in order to help prevent back injuries effectively.

This is of course especially true for obese patients. Even if patient isn't obese, however, lifting a fellow human being is dangerous work.

The OSU researchers have shown this by using sophisticated imagining devices. They use these devices to look inside the backs of nurses and other employees who lift patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

Is it safer with a team of lifters?

Does it make any difference if multiple employees are involved in trying to move a patient? The answer is no.

To be sure, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, more lifters mean less weight for each person. But that isn't necessarily enough to reduce the pressure of the patient's weight on a lifter's spine to safe levels.

Moreover, when members of a team lift together, it increases sideways pressure on their spines. The technical term for this sideways pressure is "sheer" - and it can be devastatingly damaging to nurses' backs.

Protecting your interests

In short, the patient handling methods that nurses have traditionally been taught are practically a prescription for back injuries.

If you are a nurse who hurt your back on the job, this may make it necessary for you to bring a workers' compensation claim. Keep in mind, as you do, that research is increasingly showing that the lifting techniques you were trained had terrible flaws. They were unsafe at any patient weight.

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