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How Nurses Stay Safe in a Dangerous Environment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare sector is one of the most dangerous places to work in America. To limit the impact of the many hazards nurses face in doing their jobs, awareness is key.

Infectious Diseases/Hazardous Exposures

When we think about hazardous exposure in relation to healthcare, we often first think of infectious disease. Nurses are frequently exposed to a variety of diseases — it comes with the job. Over 800,000 healthcare workers are exposed to blood-borne pathogens every year. This includes diseases like hepatitis B, MRSA, tuberculosis, HIV and influenza, among others. However, there are other workplace hazards nurses should be aware of:

  • Radiation exposure – Nurses who work in radiology, critical care or the emergency department may have a higher risk of exposure, but all nurses are vulnerable.
  • Chemical exposure – Although oncology nurses may have a higher risk of exposure to chemicals, all nurses should follow proper protocols with chemicals.
  • Dermatitis – Constant handwashing can lead to contact dermatitis or cracked, dry skin. It is not only uncomfortable but creates a portal of entry for germs and chemicals.

Over-Exertion

Nursing often requires lifting and moving patients, and it is best to have assistance so that you do not injure yourself. Unfortunately, many nurses do not have the proper assistance when completing these tasks, leading to musculoskeletal injuries. The president of the International Safety Center notes, "Nurses lift the equivalent of 1.8 tons every eight hours." It's no wonder nurses are suffering from back pain!

Additionally, nurses are often overworked and many healthcare facilities are understaffed, which can lead to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. Unfortunately, this can lead to poorer quality patient care and an increase in errors. Nurses may feel that they cannot provide the best care possible for their patients due to workplace constraints. This may cause frustration, discouragement, lack of job satisfaction, burnout and turnover.

Workplace Violence

Workplace violence can be either physical or psychological, and it can come from patients, their family members or even your colleagues. "Lateral violence" is the term for bullying, either verbal or nonverbal between colleagues. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported in 2013 (the most recent data) that 13% of days away from work in the healthcare sector were the result of workplace violence. While many states have laws that increase penalties for the assault of nurses, workplace violence is still a serious concern for healthcare workers.

Emotional Over-Involvement

A lack of clear, professional boundaries can lead to emotional and mental distress. Many times, crossing boundaries is unintentional and comes from a genuine desire to meet a patient or caregiver's need. For example:

A nurse brings in an extra soft blanket for a wife who has mentioned how scratchy the hospital blankets are. Having been at her husband's side all night, the wife is in desperate need of sleep. The gesture seems kind and harmless, but the nurse has failed to consider the downstream effects of his or her actions. The nurse needs to ask herself or himself:

  • Will other patients see this as favoritism?
  • Am I setting unfair expectations for my co-workers to meet?
  • Am I able to do this for every caregiver in my care in perpetuity?
  • Is this in violation of my workplace policies?

This act may seem harmless, but blurred lines can lead to compassion fatigue, burnout and other negative mental health consequences. The nursing field already has a high turnover rate, so it is important to maintain professional boundaries to protect yourself, your co-workers, your employer and your patients.

How to Stay Safe

When nurses care for themselves, they are better able to care for their patients. Below are some tips on how to stay safe for a sustainable career in nursing.

  • Follow your employer's protocols: Your employer has policies and procedures in place to protect staff members. This may include guidelines on personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, gowns, etc.), information about universal precautions, and how to report workplace injuries or violence.
  • Ask for help: Your colleagues are a great resource, both for information and for physical assistance. If you are unsure about something or if you need help lifting a patient, ask your colleagues for support. Always use back safety precautions — your body will thank you for years to come.
  • Speak up: If something does not feel right, say something! If you see bullying, verbal abuse, intimidation or co-workers crossing professional boundaries, alert your nurse manager immediately.
  • Practice self-care: Take time to take care of yourself, even if it is just a few minutes every day. Make sure you are maintaining work/life balance with clear lines between work and home life. The more you can relax and restore yourself when you're not at work, the more effective you will be at work.

Though nursing can be a dangerous job, RNs can minimize risk in many ways. Critical thinking and common sense are good places to start.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University's online RN to BSN program.


Sources:

Minority Nurse: Personal Safety for Nurses

The Sentinel Watch: Nurses Face Workplace Hazards

NCBI: Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses

Oncology Nursing News: Lateral Violence in Nursing Can Take Many Forms

OSHA: Workplace Violence in Healthcare

American Nurses Association: Workplace Violence

Oncology Nursing News: What Are Professional Boundaries and Why Do They Matter?

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