There are health and safety risks for every occupation, with some having more injuries than others. The landscaper who mows my lawn might be injured by a piece of equipment. The pest control technician who sprays my lawn might be exposure to toxic chemicals. As a professor, I might have a wrist injury due to too much typing. What makes nursing unique is that nurses are exposed to every category of potential health threats at work. This is why nursing is one of the hardest occupations.
Workplace physical and psychological illness and injury comes from seven different sources.
- Biological: Exposure to an infectious disease that can be air borne or transmitted through bodily fluids.
- Chemical: Toxic substances that can be hazardous and lead to immediate poisoning, or can cause illness after some long-term period of exposure.
- Mechanical: A collision with an object (a motor vehicle) or with the ground (fall from a ladder).
- Bio-mechanical: Repetitive strain injuries that come from performing too much of an activity (e.g., typing) or an injury from putting excessive strain on the body (e.g., lifting too heavy an object).
- Physical violence: Being assaulted by a person with or without a weapon.
- Psychological mistreatment: Verbal abuse from another person that can be face-to-face or through social media.
- Workplace stress: Conditions and events at work that are distressing such as excessive workloads or having to deal with emotionally upsetting situations.
Occupations vary in the extent to which they potentially expose people to each of the seven sources, but what is remarkable about nurses is that they are exposed to all seven.
Nursing Is One of the Hardest Occupations
Workplace fatalities are unusual for nurses, but workplace illnesses and injuries are very common.
- Biological: Because nurses deal with sick people, they are potentially exposed to infectious disease. A common accident for a nurse is a sharps injury where the skin is punctured by a dirty sharp object. For example, a nurse gives a patient with an infectious disease an injection, and accidentally pokes herself with the dirty needle.
- Chemical: Nurses administer medications that can be toxic if absorbed through the skin.
- Mechanical: One of the leading causes of accidental injury for a nurse is a slip-and-fall. Often nurses work on tile floors that become wet and slippery, making it possible to slip and be injured.
- Bio-mechanical: The leading cause of injury for a nurse is a back injury. Most of these injuries occur while lifting or moving patients.
- Physical Violence: Nursing has one of the highest rates of physical violence of all occupations. Although assaults are rarely with weapons, serious non-life threatening injuries do occur. In our review of more than 130 studies of violence against nurses we found that more than a third of them experienced physical violence at work.
- Psychological Mistreatment: Nurses put up with a great deal of psychological mistreatment from patients, patient family members, and even other nurses. We found that more than two-thirds of nurses experience mistreatment at work.
- Workplace Stress: A national survey of US nurses found that stress was the number one health and safety concern. Nursing is an occupation where mistakes literally have life and death consequences. This creates stress on nurses who must be extremely careful to get everything right. On top of that, nurses in many settings are dealing with patient trauma and death, which can result in post traumatic stress.
Making Things Easier for Nurses
There is a lot that organizations can do to make life easier for nurses, and reduce their chances of illness and injury on the job. There are two areas the consider.
A factor that contributes to all seven sources of exposures is understaffing–not having enough employees to comfortably get the job done. This puts nurses under pressure to work too quickly, making accidents and medical mistakes more likely. It means having less time with patients and leaving patients waiting, which makes it more likely the patient will become upset and lash out. It means prioritizing speed over safety in everything from being sure the floor is dry to lifting a heavy patient alone rather than getting help. Understaffing might save money in the short run, but at the risk of increased injuries and errors that can be even more costly than hiring more staff.
General Safety Climate
One of the best ways to control the seven sources of illness and injuries is by building a general safety climate. An organizational climate concerns the policies and practices and what behaviors are encouraged versus discouraged. A general safety climate is one in which management is concerned for the physical and psychological health and well-being of employees. There is an emphasis on safety over expediency, and everyone is encouraged to contribute to both a physically and psychologically safe environment. In such an organization, everyone is supportive and making such that safety risks are minimized.
Nursing is one of the hardest occupations because nurses are on the front lines, dealing with critical issues in an environment where they are potentially exposed to many kinds of hazards. We should all keep that in mind when a nurse is treating us, and be sure that we do what we can to make his or her day a little nicer.
SUBSCRIBE TO PAUL’S BLOG: Enter your e-mail and click SUBSCRIBE