Safe patient handling: How to limit clinician injury and cut costs in the OR

Workplace injuries pose numerous clinical and financial consequences for healthcare facilities nationwide.

In 2011, the American Nurses Association surveyed more than 4,614 nurses and found 62 percent were worried about experiencing a disabling musculoskeletal injury — a fear that surpassed concerns of contracting infectious diseases like AIDS or Ebola. Fifty-two percent of nurses also complained of chronic back pain and for 38 percent, the pain was severe enough to leave work, according to ANA1.

"It's a real crisis. Nurses and healthcare professionals are really worried about these injuries," said Miki Patterson, PhD, president of Optimizing Performance Solutions, during a Sept. 14 webinar hosted by Becker's Hospital Review and sponsored by Olympus, a provider of minimally invasive therapeutic and diagnostic technologies.

The cause of workplace injuries

Many of the injuries nurses experience stem from unsafe patient handling practices, which are exacerbated by an increasingly heavier patient population. Clinicians who work in the operating room are especially vulnerable to injury, since they regularly perform numerous high-risk tasks, such as standing in one place for long periods of time, repositioning patients on the OR table, lifting surgical supplies, moving heavy equipment and holding patient limbs.

The risk of injury is further heightened due to an aging healthcare workforce. The average age for a registered nurse is 50, and the average age of an OR nurse is 53, according to ANA.

"These older staff members have been exposed to repetitive stress and injury throughout their entire careers," said Dr. Patterson. In some circumstances, injury can force clinicians to end their careers early, a trend that fuels the ongoing nursing shortage.

The cost of workplace injuries

Workplace injuries pose serious financial consequences for healthcare providers in both direct and indirect costs, according to Dr. Patterson. The direct cost of a staff injury can range from $27,000 to $83,000 per claim. Some staff injuries can also have adverse effects on patients, and may result in patient injuries. Patient injuries can surpass $1 million per claim.

These costs add up. Dr. Patterson cited a 2010 case study published in Nursing Economic$ involving a U.S. hospital that reported an average of 20 staff injuries per year. The hospital's direct costs were $27,206 per claim or an average of $548,040 annually. In three years, the hospital spent more than $1,644,120 on workplace injuries2.

Indirect costs can be three times greater than direct costs, considering lost work time, worker's compensation fees and the price of hiring replacement staff. The loss of a highly skilled and experienced OR clinician can also lead to increased setup times, longer case times and a subsequent reduction in margins, according to Dr. Patterson.

"Imagine if a surgeon is injured," she said. "The lost revenue would be exponential."

Promoting safer patient handling

Healthcare providers can implement numerous strategies and technologies to promote safer patient handling.

By adopting maximum weight requirements for lifting patients or holding limbs, hospitals can help ensure staff safety. Some hospitals even implement no-lift policies for staff, instead relying on lift technology to help clinicians safely transfer, turn or reposition patients, according to Dr. Patterson.

Boom-integrated patient lifts in the OR are able to perform many of the tasks considered high risk for surgical staff. These lifts can transfer patients laterally, reposition the patient on the OR table, lift and hold patient limbs and hold manual retraction in place of the clinician.

By implementing this technology, hospitals can reduce clinician fatigue, decrease workman's compensation rates and achieve fewer patient injuries, among other benefits.

To compare the upfront costs of installing lift technology in the OR with the potential savings associated with reduced injuries, Olympus offers a return-on-investment calculator. Hospitals can input their own figures into the calculator to evaluate their costs and potential savings. 

Other simple fixes involve the use of comfort mats in the OR to limit clinicians' pain from standing in one place for prolonged periods of time.

"We know preventing injuries is the right thing to do," said Dr. Patterson. "Evidence shows it's also a good return on investment with most hospitals seeing a return in just one to three years. This is the wave of the future and we have to start protecting our healthcare workers."

To view a recording of the webinar, click here.

To download a PDF of the presentation slides, click here.


  1. H.R. 2480 — 113th Congress: Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act of 2013.” 2013. September 6, 2017
  2. Hunter (2010)Nursing Economic$,Vol 28/No 2

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