Back Injury Risks Caring for Patients and the Elderly

25 January 2017

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Many workers are employed in a caring capacity, whether in a hospital, nursing home or caring for someone in their own home. Many of the patients or individuals being cared for are vulnerable, have difficulties with their mobility or, if they are confined to bed, need help with being made comfortable.

Quite often those workers who are employed in a caring capacity don't fully appreciate the risks involved in assisting patients who have problems with their mobility. Patients who have had operative treatment or individuals who are elderly and infirm may require assistance with transferring from a bed to a chair, or help with walking from room to room or going to the toilet. When assisting patients and the elderly, there is a risk that the carer themselves will suffer an injury to their back, shoulder, neck or arms.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), musculoskeletal disorders were the most common type of work-related illness in 2014. Lifting or moving people or loads was the second most reported risk factor in workplaces.

Keeping Employees Safe

So what should an employer do to keep their employees safe? The main thing that is to carry out a risk assessment. A risk assessment should identify the risks involved in caring for the individual with mobility problems, and the steps that should be taken to control and reduce the risk of injury to their employees.

For example, does the patient have difficulty getting out of bed? If so, the employer should consider whether a hoist should be provided. Does the patient have a history of falling? If so, the employer should consider how best to keep the patient mobile, whilst also making sure that those employed to care for the resident are kept safe.

In these circumstances, the employer could provide a wheelchair for days when the patient is particularly unsteady on their feet, and should consider how many staff members are required to care for the patient. It might be appropriate for 2 or 3 members of staff to accompany the patient, with a member of staff at either side of the patient and another walking behind with a wheelchair.

The Falling Patient

Accidents can happen when a patient starts to fall to the floor. Instinctively, the reaction is to try and save the patient, but to do so could cause injury to the patient and carer alike. Instead, it has been recommended that where possible the patient's descent to the floor should be controlled. The patient should then be made comfortable until assistance arrives and the patient can be moved safely back into bed.

Aids and Equipment

Aids and equipment also have a significant part to play and can be used to reduce the need to manually move or handle a patient. The type and amount of equipment required will depend on the needs of the patient.

For instance, employers should consider whether the patient need rails when in the bathroom, or a special bath which would remove the need to lift a patient in and out of a bath. Special shower hoists and chairs can also be used to help to prevent injuries.

If the patient is still mobile, a wheelchair may not be required, but it might help the patient for a walking frame to be provided. Again, the employer should consider how many staff should care for the patient when the patient is walking with their frame.

Where someone is confined to a bed, slide sheets and boards should be used to make the patient comfortable. Special beds are available which can be used when turning patients. In most circumstances it will not be appropriate to lift a patient into a seated position either single handed or with another carer.

Many injuries have been caused to carers and patients as a consequence of lifting patients up a bed using a Drag Lift. This lift involves the carers hooking their elbows under the patient's armpits and dragging them up the bed. The Drag Lift, together with other manual lifts known as the Orthodox and Australian lifts, have been found to give rise to a significant risk of back, shoulder, neck or arm injuries and should no longer be used.

Care Plans

In many instances where a patient has mobility issues, the employer should ensure that a care plan is prepared. The care plan should set out the nature and extent of the patient's mobility problems, the aids and equipment to be used when caring for the patient and the number of staff required to assist the patient when mobilising.

Staff Training

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 set out a number of measures to reduce the risks of injury to employees involved in manual handling activities. These measures should be considered and implemented as appropriate where an employee is involved in the care of individuals with mobility problems. The measures to be taken include avoiding manual handling activities where reasonably practicable, assessing manual handling activities which can't be avoided, and reducing the risk of injury to the lowest level reasonably practicable.

Where manual handling of patients or elderly people cannot be avoided, appropriate training should be provided for all staff who are required to move or handle people as part of their job. Training is, however, very much a last resort. There is a great deal of useful equipment available that can be used where a patient requires moving or handling and if the employer fails to provide such equipment, they can rightly be criticised and may face a claim for compensation where the carer has suffered injury.

Personal Injury Claims for Compensation

If you have suffered an injury as a consequence of moving or handling a patient, care home resident or individual in their own home, you may be entitled to claim compensation for pain and suffering, medical treatment, rehabilitation support and lost earnings.

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