Workplace Injuries Cost Healthcare $13B: What Hospitals Can Do

An expert provides tips on how hospitals can prevent workplace injuries.

Healthcare workers report some of the highest injury rates in the nation, and those injuries come at a price beyond the workers' wellbeing. In 2011, healthcare worker injuries ended up costing the industry an estimated $13.1 billion and more than two million lost work days, according to Scott Harris, PhD, director of EHS Advisory Services for UL Workplace Health & Safety. The hospital share of that was an estimated $6.2 billion and at least 926,000 lost work days

Broken down to the individual level, each healthcare employee with a lost-time injury costs just over $73,000, Dr. Harris says. Across the healthcare workforce it’s $862 per employee. "Someone is paying for that," he says. "That 'someone' is a combination of the hospital, workers compensation and eventually the customer."

In other words, workplace injuries are a major, costly problem for hospitals and the industry as a whole. Here, Dr. Harris shares tips for how hospitals can prevent the problem head on.

Develop a culture of safety

To do anything about workplace injuries, hospitals first must analyze who is getting hurt and how it is happening. Generally in healthcare, nurses who do patient lifts and movement are more prone to being injured on the job, according to Dr. Harris. That scenario accounted for more than half of the 2011 lost-time injuries in hospitals.

From there, hospitals need to take concrete steps to create a culture of safety. "Your organization has to want to put an end to this," Dr. Harris says. "You won't fix this by hiring a safety person and saying, 'It's your job to fix this.' You must have a culture shift."

Shifting into a culture of employee safety is easier said than done, but there are some steps hospital executives can take to get the ball rolling.
 
Start at the top. A culture focused on employee safety needs to start in the C-suite and with the board, according to Dr. Harris. "[Leaders] have to talk it, walk it and do it," he says.

Change how safety is defined. Many hospital leaders are laser-focused on patient safety but put employee safety on the back burner. "We would argue that patient safety and worker safety shouldn't be separated," says Dr. Harris. "Safety is safety."

Make reporting easy. Once executives, board members and the rest of the organization start to look at employee safety in a different way, they should then look at how "near-misses" — events that could have led to an injury — "observations" of unsafe conditions and actual injuries are reported at the organization. "If nurses are complaining about wet floors or if they can't lift this patient, [hospital executives] need to take that seriously," says Dr. Harris. "Pay attention to complaints and safety observations. They are your warning signs and your opportunities for early intervention."

For employees to actually report an incident or an observation, the system has to be easy to use. "If you're a nurse working 12-hour shifts, and you slip and fall, you're not inclined to go fill out a form, talk to a supervisor and get a signature," says Dr. Harris. "Generally, nurses walk it off." If nurses and other staff could have an established procedure to quickly record the event and move on with their business, Dr. Harris says there's a better chance leaders will know something happened, allowing them to take action to eliminate risks and prevent similar injuries.

Some systems prefer to use a paperless incident management system, where employees can use a smartphone or tablet to automatically record and report issues. But, if a paperless version is not feasible, "paper is better than nothing," says Dr. Harris.  The problem with inefficient paper-based systems is the tendency to not close the loop. The electronic systems put the information where it needs to be as soon as the record is created, leading to greater visibility and accountability. That ultimately leads to better resolution of issues and improved safety.

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