Occupational Health News Roundup

NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling reports on the failure of hospitals to protect nursing staff from preventable and often debilitating injuries, writing that nursing assistants and orderlies suffer three times the rate of back and musculoskeletal injuries as construction workers. In fact, federal data show that nursing assistants experience more injuries than any other occupation. Zwerdling starts his piece with the story of Pennsylvania nurse Tove Schuster:

While working the overnight shift, (Schuster) heard an all-too-common cry: “Please, I need help. My patient has fallen on the floor.”

The patient was a woman who weighed more than 300 pounds. So Schuster did what nursing schools and hospitals across the country teach: She gathered a few colleagues, and they lifted the patient as a team.

“I had her legs — a corner of one of the legs, anyway,” says Schuster, who was 43 years old at the time. “And as we swung her up onto the bed, I felt something pop. And I went ‘ooo.’ ”

She finished the shift in pain and drove straight home to bed.

But after Schuster woke up late that afternoon, her husband, Matt, heard her shouting. He says he ran to the bedroom and found her crawling across the floor. “I thought it was a joke at first,” he says. “And she says, ‘I can’t walk.'”

During Zwerdling’s investigation, he found that the traditional way nurses have been taught to move patients — bending the knees and keeping the back straight — is actually quite dangerous. And while some hospitals have been successful at reducing lifting-related injuries using special machinery and intensive staff training, most hospitals have not taken such action. But perhaps most alarming was this finding from the article:

Many hospital administrators overlook injuries among the nursing staff partly because they’re preoccupied with other priorities. Industry sources told NPR that nursing employees have traditionally ranked low in the hospital industry’s hierarchy.

“Too many hospital administrators see nursing staff as second-class citizens,” says Suzanne Gordon, author of Nursing Against the Odds. “Historically, hospital administrators have viewed nurses as a disposable labor force.”

To read the full investigative article, visit NPR.

In other news:

Salon: Writer Luke Brinker reports that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has “dramatically escalated his war against labor unions,” signing an executive order this week that allows public employees to opt out of paying “fair share” fees that support collective bargaining. (Whether a union member or not, all employees in unionized workplaces benefit from collective bargaining activities, thus the application of fair share fees.) According to Brinker, Rauner has called the fees unconstitutional; however, the Supreme Court has upheld such fees as legal as long as they’re not used to fund political activities. The story reads: “Bruce Rauner’s scheme to strip the rights of state workers and weaken their unions by executive order is a blatantly illegal abuse of power,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch told the Sun-Times in a statement yesterday. “Perhaps as a private equity CEO, Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meaning.”

The Hill: Senate Republicans are moving to block the National Labor Relations Board from speeding up union elections. Reporter Tim Devaney writes that labor officials and Democrats argue that the rule is needed to prevent companies from delaying such elections and intimidating workers. Currently, it takes about 38 days from the time a petition is filed to hold an election, but the new NLRB rule could shorten that time to closer to 10 days. Opponents, however, are describing the measure as an “ambush” election rule and a “sneak attack” on businesses.

The New York Times: Reporter Rachel Abrams writes that Ashley Furniture, one of the world’s largest furniture makers, has been hit with $1.7 million in fines related to unsafe working conditions at its plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin, that have resulted in more than 1,000 injuries. OSHA cited the company for dozens of violations, with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez describing Ashley Furniture as an OSHA “frequent flier.” The company has also been placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program for its failure to fix a number of safety issues. Abrams quotes Perez as saying: “I don’t quite understand how the worker can be to blame when the fact of the matter is, the machines lacked the proper safety mechanisms, which are not that expensive. This is not splitting the atom.”

USA Today: Oil refinery workers from Ohio to California have gone on strike, joining the biggest refinery work stoppage since 1980, according to reporter Mike Snider. He writes that the initial strike began after a negotiation breakdown between United Steelworkers and BP. As of this weekend, more than 5,000 workers nationwide had joined the strike. In a Huffington Post blog post, United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard writes that during previous negotiations, workers “struggled” to get their employers to include strong safety language in their collective bargaining agreements. In the post, Gerard remembers the workers who lost their lives in the 2010 Tesoro refinery blast in Anacortes, Washington; investigators eventually found that the piece of machinery that triggered the explosion was known by management to be faulty. Gerard quotes a striking worker: “A big part of this strike is that none of us wants to be the next person to lose his life for no good reason.”

Upworthy: Check out the new documentary, “The Hand That Feeds,” a film about immigrant and low-wage workers who are organizing against the odds for fair wages and working conditions. (We’ve posted the trailer below.) And visit the filmmakers’ Kickstarter campaign, which is raising funds to release the documentary nationwide, to learn more about the film and its subjects.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.