Hedge, Ph.D., FErgS, AFBPsS
Ithaca, NY, USA
Suffering from Back Pain?
Construction workers, warehouse personnel, delivery goods drivers, nurses,
shopkeepers and farm workers. If you had to choose, which of these occupations
suffers the highest incidence of back injury? You might think that construction
workers or delivery goods drivers might be the riskiest occupations for back
injuries, because the work involves a lot of bending and lifting, but you'd be
wrong! Many people are surprised to learn the nursing is the riskiest occupation
for back injuries! In fact, nursing has the second highest incidence of all
types of non-fatal work-related injuries in the U.S.A.
The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics are shown below in Table 1, and nursing
easily tops the list of occupation as most associated with work-related
musculoskeletal disorders. By what is this and what can be done to reduce risks?
Number (in 1,000s) of work-related musculoskeletal disorders involving time
away from work and median days away from work by occupation, 1998.
Median days away from work
Total musculoskeletal disorders
Registered nurses, nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants
Janitors and cleaners
Stock handlers and baggers
(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998)
In all industries combined, 1998 injury data show that nearly 12 out of 100
nurses in hospitals, and 17.3 out of 100 nurses working in nursing homes report
work-related musculoskeletal injuries, including back injuries, which is about
double the rate for all industries combined.
Recent Research on Back Injuries in Nursing
A Dutch questionnaire survey of back pain prevalence and physical work
demands compared nurses working in institutional care with nurses working in
patient's private homes, where there was more frequent and heavy lifting and
transferring of patients, plus more static workloads. Results showed that
back pain prevalence was relatively high among these community nurses, as
compared to rates among nurses in other health care sectors. Community nurses
with back pain, who continued to work, reported providing less efficient home
care work. Total sick leave incidence due to musculoskeletal disorders, other
than back pain, exceeded that due to back pain alone among these community
Similar results have been reported in an Australian retrospective
questionnaire survey of manual handling activities and associated injuries among
269 nursing professionals working at a large teaching and referral medical
center in Melbourne, Australia.  Overall, 40.1% reported an
injury associated with manual handling activity, of which 75.9% (82) were back
injuries. The prevalence of all manual handling and back injuries was lower
among the 108 full- time nurses, 20.6% and 15.7% respectively. Direct patient
care activities accounted for about two-thirds (67.6%) of all manual handling
injuries. Lifting patients accounted for one half of all direct patient care
activity associated injuries, and approximately one-third (34.3%) of all
injuries. Similar results were found for manual handling practices and injuries
among Intensive Care Units (ICU) nurses working in a large tertiary referral
medical center in Australia where the rate of manual handling and back injuries
among ICU nurses was high (52.2% and 71.4% respectively). 
A retrospective case-control study at the Istituti Ortopedici Rizzoli in
Bologna (Italy) investigated the risk factors for low-back pain in hospital
workers. Compared with a control group of hospital staff, the risks of
low-back pain were significantly higher in nursing and health aides (OR=
21.67), in nurses (OR: 20.21), in therapists (OR:
16.36) and in X-ray technicians (OR: 13.64). The risk of
occupational back injury was highest in the orthopedic wards, in the
plaster-rooms, in the operating blocks and in the sterilization plants. Increased
risk of back pain was strongly associated with specific manual handling. Non-
occupational factors( cigarette smoking, previous trauma leading to hospital
admission, and for women, number of children), showed only weak associations. 
What are the risk factors for Back Injury?
There are two main risk factors for back injury among nurses: lifting
and transferring patients, and bed- making. During a typical shift, on average a
hospital staff nurse will lift 20 patients into bed, and transfer 5-10 patients
from bed to a chair.  Patients typically weight in excess of 100lbs,
which puts this load well above the weight that would be considered 'safe' for
industrial workers for this frequency of lifting. As with many hospitality
workers, bed- making also increases the risks of back injury because of the
bending and stretching involved in putting sheets onto a bed. 
Ergonomics can Change Injury Risks
Throughout the 1990s there was a steady decline in the incidence of
non-fatal injuries among nursing professionals, and much of that was attributed to better training and better equipment.
Annual injury incidence rate (in 1,000s) among nursing professions from 1992
(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998).
Workplace intervention programs can be effective in reducing back injuries. A
2-years inception cohort study investigated risk factors for 320 nurses, who
incurred 416 back injuries, at a large teaching hospital in Winnipeg, Canada. 
Results showed that back injuries that occurred while lifting patients resulted
in greater time loss, the degree of pain was strongly related to the duration of
time loss, and that participation in the return-to-work program focusing on back
injury prevention reduced the duration of time loss.
Back Injury Prevention Training
Training seems to play an important role in reducing the incidence of injury,
as shown by the fact that about 80% of injuries occur among nursing aides,
orderlies, and attendants compared with 20% occurring among registered nurses.
Research has shown that training programs can be effective. In response to
concerns over high incidence and severity of back injuries among nursing staff
and others at a 440-bed acute care Australian hospital, the impact of a one-year
Back Injury Prevention Program was evaluated.  The program that
was implemented included:
ergonomic evaluation of patient handling - identification of ergonomic risk
testing of equipment designed to reduce injury risks, especially in patient
of new equipment identified as being most effective by the testing.
program - in this way trainers can impart their knowledge to others and so
of 374 nurses and other patient handling staff (approximately one-half of
the nursing staff at the hospital).
At the end of the program, trainees showed increased knowledge of injury risk
factors, a marginal increase in the use of mechanical patient transfer devices,
and a decrease in repositioning of patients in bed, compared with control
subjects. Furthermore, compared with the average injury rates for the prior 3
years, trainees showed a 30% decrease in injuries. The authors concluded that
back injury training increase knowledge of the injury risk factors and changed
risky behaviors, such as how often patients were moved. Optimal training
effectiveness is, however, also dependent on the availability of engineering
controls, such as patient transfer devices.
Ways to Reduce Injury Risks
There are several ways that hospitals, care facilities, and nursing
professionals can reduce injury risks.
lifting assistance devices - a variety of devices is available to help
lift and move patients from bed to seat, such as:
belt - this is a specialized belt that fits snugly around the patient's
waist and has hand straps for the nurse or caregiver to grasp while
assisting during transfers or walking.
- lightweight metal frame devices with rails that can be gripped by the
patient to help to support their body weight during transfer and rising
- wooden or metal rails that are fixed to walls or equipment, such as
beds, to allow the patient to help to support their body weight during
lifts - a hydraulic lift that consists of a metal frame and a heavy
canvas swing. It is capable of lifting and suspending a patient for
Boards - a smooth board with tapered ends made of either wood or plastic
that is used to help someone get from one sitting surface to another.
- Draw/Lift Sheets - a regular flat sheet placed under a person in bed can be used
to move them. If the sheet is strong enough it can also be used to lift
and transfer the patient.
- Using Appropriate Equipment - there is a choice of powered equipment available
to reduce patient handling activities, such as powered beds to change a
patient's posture, height adjustable chairs, and powered wheelchairs.
- Use Appropriate Beds - the height of the bed determines how much bending and
reaching a nurse has to do. Nurses are different heights, so a
simple-to-operate, height-adjustable bed is important to allow bed height to
be appropriately adjusted to the nurse.
- Use Back Belts - the general use of back belts in the distribution industry
has been questioned. However, in a study of 47 employees over a 6-month
period, the use of back belts significantly reduced injury risks. The test
group with back belts worked 22,243 hours and had no injuries, whereas the
control group worked 23,109 hours and lost 80 hours due to back injuries. 
- Implement Regular Equipment Maintenance Procedures - equipment must be kept in
good working order.
- Ergonomic Design of Workplaces - use architectural and design features, such
as rails or ramps, to minimize awkward movements.
- Providing Better Ergonomics Training - train nurses and and health aides in good
work postures and ways of minimizing twisting, bending and/or lifting items
from the floor. Also train them in safe lifting practices, and in the
correct use of appropriate equipment. Provide ways of refreshing and
reinforcing the training.
Adequate Staffing - injury risks can be reduced by increasing the number
of people available to assist with lifting patients.
Record-Keeping - implement processes that facilitate more detailed
statistics on manual handling activities and outcomes so that this can help
to identify injury trends before more serious incidents occur.
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Ortopedici Rizzoli in Bologna. A case-control study of the injury phenomenon in
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after back injury in nurses, Spine, 24 (18), 1930-5; discussion on
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OR = Odds Ratio. This measures the odds of a disease in
exposed individuals, such as nurses, relative to the odds of disease in
unexposed individuals, that is, non-nurses.