The Hazards of Patient Handling

Being a nurse is a labor-intensive, physically demanding profession. Because of this, nursing is actually one of the career fields where workers are most likely to become injured on the job. The Department of Labor Bureau found that nurses endure over 35,000 musculoskeletal injuries a year that prevent them from being able to work.1News publications have started highlighting this vital issue after a number of research studies found nurses are at a higher risk for injury compared to construction workers, factory workers, and a number of other jobs involving high levels of physical labor.2


Hospital organizations have responded to many of the health hazards that exist in order to improve workplace safety. Despite this, patient handling injuries still make up over ¼ of all workers’ compensation claims for the healthcare industry.3Patient handling injuries sustained from lifting and repositioning patients continues to be an issue that warrants being addressed further.


Types of Lifting Injuries

Lifting injuries can occur suddenly during the lift itself, or can develop over time due to the repetitive forces exerted on the spine from performing lifts. Injuries occur most frequently in the back or the shoulder. The job-related lifting injuries with the highest prevalence are:4

  • Sprains—stretching or tearing of a ligament
  • Strains—stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon
  • Herniated discs—also known as a “slipped” or “ruptured” disc; occurs when part of one of the discs situated between vertebrae in the back pushes outward towards the spinal canal


The Inherent Dangers of Lifting

Many factors can contribute to musculoskeletal injuries sustained while lifting and transporting patients. Some of these factors are inherent in the lifting technique itself. Three major factors specifically impacting nurses have been identified by experts at the Spine Research Institute, including the distance between the patient and person lifting, the amount of bend in the spine during the lift, and repetition of lifts.5


Studies have shown that training nurses on proper body mechanics during patient handling activities has no significant impact on improving work practices or reducing injury rates.6The degree of the forces that are placed on the spine during lifting maneuvers are large enough that even following the best body mechanic techniques cannot prevent injuries and low back pain.1A number of the popular lifting techniques (pivot lift, bear hug, shoulder lift) are also not currently recommended by research.6This places nurses in quite the predicament when a patient needs to be repositioned or lifted, but manual lifting is their only viable option.


Barriers to Safer Lifting Practices

In some instances, nurses may feel obligated to manually lift a patient when barriers to safer lifting practices are present. Nurses who work in hospitals with lifting equipment available have often expressed that the equipment can take too much extra time to look for and retrieve. When lifting equipment is shared between units or stored inconveniently in various locations or behind other supplies, nurses under time constraints may decide to manually lift the patient instead. Similarly, when hospital units are understaffed nurses who want to enlist the help of other individuals to help perform a lift might find that no one is available.


Added Complicating Factors

As the rate of obesity continues to rise in the United States, nurses have to consistently lift increasingly heavier loads in order to transfer or reposition a patient’s body. Additionally, the patients being sent to outpatient hospitals are often sicker compared to 20 years ago.6Treating sicker patients means handling individuals with more mobility limitations and complex medical situations. Despite these trends making patients more difficult to lift, there is a greater push to get patients out of bed and moving early.


The High Cost of Lifting Injuries

Patient handling injuries result in serious financial consequences to nurses, hospitals, and the healthcare industry as a whole. The costs associated with overexertion injuries in the healthcare industry are approximately $2 billion each year.4The average workers’ compensation claim for injuries related to patient handling costs $15,600.3For nurses, a lifting injury often results days away from work and can even become the primary reason for an early retirement. These days away from work result in costly wage replacement expenses, accounting for $12,000 out of the $15,600 average workers’ compensation claim and making patient handling injuries among the most expensive type of hospital worker injuries.3


Addressing the issue of patient handling injuries is a difficult task, since there are a number of complicating factors that make each lifting and repositioning situation unique.  Nurses who have been injured on the job during patient handling can benefit from contacting an experienced worker’s compensation attorney who can put together a benefits claim. In the next blog post information regarding safe handling programs and current recommendations for lifting will be outlined.



  1. Zwerdling D. Hospitals fail to protect nursing staff from becoming patients. Published February 4, 2015. Accessed June 10, 2019.

2.Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2012. Table 18. In Economic News Release: Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2011. Accessed at: osh2_11082012.htm.

  1. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Safe patient handling programs: Effectiveness and cost savings. Published September 2013. Accessed June 10, 2019.
  2. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Worker safety in your hospital: Know the facts. Published September 2013. Accessed June 10, 2019.
  3. White J. No. 1 threat to your nurses: Injuries from lifting patients. Published February 24, 2015. Accessed June 10, 2019.
  4. Howard NL. Patient handling: Fact vs. fiction. Am Nurse Today.July 2010;5(7). Accessed at: