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Washington: Bill Aims to Protect Health Care Workers, Patients from Injuries

Washington state lawmakers passed a groundbreaking bill that should put health care workers, as well as patients, at ease. The Safe Patient Handling law passed March 8 would require hospitals to provide mechanical lift equipment for the safe lifting and movement of patients.

The victory is the result of a joint effort of the Washington State Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 141 and Service Employees International Union 1199NW.

The bill will protect Washington nurses, nursing assistants and other health care workers against injury related to manual patient lifting through the use of modern technology designed for the task. In addition, the law also will protect patients from unintentional pain and injuries, such as skin tears, bruising, dislocations and being dropped, which sometimes occur during attempts to lift and move patients manually.

"Registered nurses throughout the state applaud the passage of this critical legislation and are celebrating this key victory which will reduce musculoskeletal injuries for nurses at the bedside," said Kim Armstrong, BSN, R.N., president of WSNA.

Patient transfers, lifting and handling are physically demanding and present clear risk for both the patient and the nurse, according to WSNA. The risks not only are damaging to the health of nurses and patients, but also are costly in workers' compensation insurance, lost time and turnover.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that nursing ranks as one of the top 10 occupations for work-related musculoskeletal disorders. An estimated 12 to 18 percent of nurses leave the profession due to chronic back pain.

"Health care lags way behind many other industries as they have mechanized to remove the causes of acute and chronic back injuries," added Judy Huntington, MN, R.N., executive director of WSNA. "These injuries not only lead to higher workers' compensation and insurance costs, but also drive many registered nurses out of direct patient care. We look forward to working with the hospitals in the implementation of this law."

On a timeline between Feb. 1, 2007, and Jan. 30, 2010, Washington hospitals must take measures including implementation of a safe patient handling policy and acquisition of their choice of either one readily available lift per acute-care unit on the same floor, one lift for every 10 acute-care inpatient beds or lift equipment for use by specially trained lift teams.

The new law also provides for hospital employees to refuse to perform, without fear of reprisal, patient handling or movement that the employee believes in good faith would expose a patient or employee to an unacceptable risk of injury.

Hospitals will be assisted financially with implementation of safe patient handling programs by reduced workers' compensation premiums and tax credits covering the cost of purchasing mechanical lifting or other patient handling devices.

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