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Study: Health-care staffers rank high for workplace injuries

Nurse Shauna Trapani's patient was a deadweight - literally - the last time she injured her back at work so badly that she had to miss a day of work.

Nurse Shauna Trapani's patient was a deadweight - literally - the last time she injured her back at work so badly that she had to miss a day of work.

Trapani, 35, had to roll a deceased patient from the emergency room at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where she works, to the hospital's morgue, a trip that involves pushing a bed up a ramp, around a 90-degree turn, and up another ramp.

"It's very physical work, and sometimes you just can't do it," said Trapani, who said she has suffered from work-related back pain for a decade.

Health-care workers in general, and nurses' assistants in particular, have some of the highest incidents of workplace injuries among all occupations, according to a U.S. Labor Department report released this week.

The report, based on 2013 statistics, shows an overall slight decline in workplace injuries from 2012, but to Barbara Rahke, president of the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety, each statistic reinforces the importance of continuing to push for higher standards for workplace safety.

Trapani's injury, for example, which occurred either in late 2013 or early 2014, falls under the category of musculoskeletal disorders - the cause of 33 percent of all injuries and illnesses that cause workers to miss time on the job.

With musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), physical overexertion, such as lifting or pushing, and repetitive motions lead to pinched nerves, herniated discs, carpal tunnel syndrome, sprains, strains, and pain.

Nurses' assistants have the nation's highest rate of MSD, followed by laborers and freight workers, tractor-trailer drivers, janitors, and registered nurses, such as Trapani.

"Knowing how many injuries are MSD cases, we don't have OSHA standards to give employers to prevent those kinds of injuries," Rahke said, referring to the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Standards for MSD injuries were removed during the administration of President George W. Bush, said Rahke, who also heads PhilaPOSH, a local worker health and safety organization.

Rahke said she was also struck by the number of workers affected by violence. "Workplace violence is off the charts," she said.

Nationally, state workers employed in health care and social assistance are injured at a rate of 146 incidents per 10,000 workers, the report said.

"These are people," Rahke said, "who go to check on the welfare of a child and leave with a broken jaw."

For nurses' assistants, violence, primarily from patients and family members, is the third most common cause of injury, after MSD and falls.

The Service Employees International Union has a national campaign on this topic, Rahke said, and the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, a union, is sponsoring a Harrisburg lobby day in January to talk to legislators about workplace violence and staffing ratios.

Trapani said staffing affects workplace injuries and violence. At Crozer-Chester, it was an issue in recent labor negotiations. The hospital has always said its staffing is adequate.

In her job, Trapani often finds herself rushing to the curb to pull an injured person with a gunshot wound out of a car.

"We're short on time, and we're understaffed," she said. Being able to gather a group to manage with the task would help prevent back injuries, but everyone is busy, she added.

"You suck it up and use all your force to get them out the car," Trapani said. "It truly is a matter of life and death."