You’re interested in the healthcare industry because you want to help people. Your compassion is your calling; it’s why you do what you do. But the irony is that by working in healthcare you’re also putting your own health in harm’s way.
Hospitals are one of the most dangerous places to work. In fact, hospital workers suffer more workplace injuries and illnesses than even those in the construction and manufacturing industries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For every 100 full-time hospital employees, there were 33 reported cases of injury and illness in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Does this mean you need to choose a new career path? No! It just means you have to be aware of the hazards and know how to prevent them. Keep reading to learn how you can stay healthy and safe in a healthcare work environment.
What are the risks?
There’s no getting around it: you’re exposed to a lot of germs and disease in hospitals. Sometimes hospital workers pay the price.
“The most common diseases hospital workers would be exposed to are bacterias causing strep, pneumonias and some viruses that cause flu and colds,” says healthcare advocate Diane Harayda M.ED.
Hospital workers that spend more face-to-face time with patients or handle more bodily fluids are more at risk than ones who briefly see patients, such as a physician, adds Peg Luebbert, consultant and owner of Healthcare Interventions, LLC.
Lifting and maneuvering patients is just part of the job for many hospital employees. Unfortunately, lifting up heavier patients can take a toll on the backs of nurses and other healthcare workers. Back injuries are all too common amongst healthcare workers, especially nursing assistants, reports NPR.
Slips, trips and falls also pose threat to hospital employees, as well as operating heavy equipment.
“When you add new techniques and new equipment, you introduce new problems,” says Luebbert. “You have to constantly be alert to what you can do.”
Unruly or violent patients
“Hospital workers are here to help and care for others, but we sometimes take a beating in doing so,” says Alicia Hyatte, an inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse social worker.
Hospital workers can unfortunately bear the brunt of stress and aggression amongst unruly patients. Patients brought in under the influence of drugs or alcohol or patients experiencing psychosis may also exhibit violent behavior that could pose a threat to workers, according to Scientific American.
Long, irregular hours amongst hospital workers also affect their health. Busy, chaotic shifts mean they often don’t get to take breaks. Overworked and understaffed hospital workers are more likely to make mistakes.
Stress and sleep deprivation from overnight shifts may also contribute to obesity in nurses, as well as poor eating habits, according to Nurse Together. Stress experienced over longer periods of time can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout, which take a toll on employee health and wellbeing.
This simple preventative act is second-nature in hospitals. After all, hospital workers more than anyone should know– it’s the most important way to reduce infection risk. However, the more hours a hospital employee works, the less likely they are to practice safe hand-washing, according to a study by the Social Science Research Network.
Non-invasive surgeries and X-rays are routine in hospitals – but these common procedures come with radiation exposure for the nurses, physicians and radiological technicians involved. Over time, this radiation exposure has been linked to cancer, cataracts and a slew of other health-related issues, says Michael D. Seymour MS, MPH, CIH, director of advocacy programs of the Organization for Occupational Radiation Safety in Interventional Fluoroscopy.
What you can do to mitigate the risk?
Fortunately, there are ways you can protect yourself in the workplace if you work in healthcare.
Wash your hands (and your uniforms)
Wash your hands all of the time, advises Jacqueline Darna, MHSc AA-C. It’s the easiest and simplest way to protect yourself. Be aware of hygiene-compliance fatigue and take a break if you begin to neglect this rule - workers that recharge and take breaks are more likely to comply with safe hand-washing standards, reports the Harvard Business Review.
Additionally, be careful with wearing your scrubs home to prevent the risk of infection, or explore anti-microbial scrubs options. Wash them with hot water daily for a safe and proactive approach, recommends Luebbert.
Overworked hospital employees put themselves at risk for compassion fatigue and compliance fatigue – so make sure you’re taking adequate time off from work to recharge.
Be on the defense
“I never let my guard down with any patient,” says Hyatte, who also teamed up with other staff members in order to maintain a safe working environment.
Additionally, practice a safe disposal system for sharps and infectious waste, as sharps injuries increase hospital workers’ risk of infectious diseases. Regular and consistent use of gowns, gloves, safety goggles and faceshields can also protect workers from potential infection via bodily fluids, according to Occupational Health and Safety.
Utilize personal protective equipment – and use it consistently, suggests Seymour.
“Precaution is the best form of protection,” Darna says, who also urges hospital employees to maintain their health by staying up to date on their immunizations and shots.
Utilize resources to avoid musculoskeletal injuries
Don’t be a hero – use the tools available when lifting or transferring patients. Utilize patient lifts, slings, slip sheets or electronic hoists to ease the strain off of your back. If these are not available to you, team up with others and use body mechanics to reduce possible back injuries.
The bottom line
Working in healthcare means you get the privilege of helping others, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your own health in order to do so. With these preventative tips, you can get the most out of the career you love without risking your health and well being.
Think you’re up for the challenge of working in healthcare? Check out the Top 11 Entry-Level Healthcare Jobs Employers Want to Fill Now to begin exploring your options!