Healthcare workers suffer overexertion and back injuries at twice the rate of other industries. These injuries are frequently due to patient handling such as transfers, repositioning, and patient support during bathing, radiological, or surgical procedures. Healthcare workers need to be aware of their increased back injury risks and take the time to use lift-assist equipment, proper procedures, and good body mechanics to handle patients safely.

Many devices are available to assist with patient handling. Multi-purpose beds allow patients to use one bed during different treatment and recovery stages, reducing the number of transfers needed. When patient transfers are required, low-friction sheets, slider boards, and even plastic bags can make the moves easier. Gait belts, trapeze bars, and transfer poles allow workers to assist and control able-bodied patients. Mechanical devices such as portable sling-lifts and stationary, mounted lifts can move patients with little effort.

Classroom and practical training on patient handling policies and techniques, ergonomics, and body mechanics help ensure that healthcare workers know how to lift and handle patients properly. Training is also necessary for the various lifting devices used at the worksite. Some hospitals report that workers do not use available lift-assist devices due to set-up times, etc. These devices should be used whenever possible to reduce worker lifting requirements.

Workers need to know the patient lifting policy for their worksite. Some employers use a “no-lift” policy where dedicated teams of employees with special training and equipment do the patient handling and lifting. Other sites may have a “no one-person lift” policy requiring workers to get assistance before moving a patient. Note: Home healthcare workers that are often alone on the job should suggest the patient get and use lift-assist devices and other movement aids.

When assigned to patient handling, workers should use proper lifting technique by keeping the back straight and using leg muscles to do the work. The move should be explained and planned with the patient. Equipment should be in place and obstacles removed from the pathway before the move. During the lift, the worker should keep the patient close to their body for easier lifting and more control. To avoid twisting, workers should point one foot in the direction that they will be turning.

If a patient begins to fall, workers should not try to catch them; sudden moves and the extra weight can lead to serious injuries. Workers should try to slow the fall by supporting the patient’s weight on their forward leg and concentrating on protecting the patient’s head. Difficult patient transfers should be recorded on the patient chart so other workers are aware of the potential hazards.

Exercise and strengthening programs can prepare healthcare workers for the patient handling tasks they will perform at work. Strong abdominal and back muscles can support the back during lifting. Stretching before work prepares the muscles for the shift. Mini-breaks and task rotation throughout the shift gives muscles a rest between tasks and can prevent overexertion injuries such as sprains and strains.