Saskatchewan’s new ergonomic study aims to reduce injuries among health care workers

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour expects a new ergonomics study on how health care workers move patients will help reduce injuries among workers. The study, which the ministry said is the first of its kind in the province, is being conducted by Aaron Unger and Carla Schatz, ergonomics specialists at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety.
The ergonomics study aims to measure the force used by health care workers as they reposition patients in bed or lift them in and out. Most of the tests, which use a demo-bed setup, are being conducted in hospitals and nursing homes located in the Sunrise Health Region, in east-central Saskatchewan.

About one-fifth of all time-loss injuries in Saskatchewan are in the health care sector, says Unger, ergonomic unit team leader. A large number of these injuries are caused by transferring and repositioning patients. Poor, unsafe transferring techniques can lead to shoulder and back injuries. Risk factors associated with moving patients include:

•    the amount of force needed to do a task,
•    awkward postures or poses,
•    repetition in job tasks, and
•    the amount of vibration on the body or a specific limb.

With the data they collect, Unger says, they will be able to identify where hazards are and show which transfer techniques and equipment setups are the safest. They also want to raise awareness among workers.

Provincial law stipulates that workers required to transfer patients must be trained in and use appropriate techniques for handling patients, he explains, but workers often don’t follow what they have been taught. As occupational health and safety officers, Unger and Schatz plan to use their results during their inspections to illustrate proper moving techniques.

“The study will show [workers] that we’ve run the tests on this, we’ve measured it and, chances are, people will get hurt doing this task unless they do it properly,” Unger says.

“It works both ways. We would like to accomplish better compliance with our safety regulations but also have workers more aware of the hazards they are exposed to.”

Tests are performed with a dynamometer, or force gauge. The device measures force over time and allows the user to produce a graph illustrating how the exertion required by a task changes as conditions — such as posture, equipment height and resistance — change.

The dynamometer also shows how much effort is reduced when a worker uses something to help move a patient, Schatz says. Even using the soaker pad, which is not intended for moving people, to reposition a patient greatly reduces the force needed for the action.

“When they use an actual assistive device, it’s amazing how much lower the force involved in that is,” she says.

Schatz says many health care workers don’t follow proper patient transferring procedures because, by training and temperament, they’re focused on helping the patient. In trying to reduce patient discomfort, they neglect their own safety.

“It’s an interesting culture. There is still that idea that the patient should always come first. And they should, but to a point,” she says.

“And it’s twofold,” she adds. “As soon as workers sacrifice themselves, then the patient is at risk, too. If you’re not safe, the patient isn’t safe either. It’s hard, though, to have workers adapt to the idea [of protecting themselves] and to get rid of that culture of the patient always coming first and of ‘it doesn’t matter, us hurting. It’s part of the job.’”

Unger and Schatz began collecting data in the Sunrise region in January and are currently conducting tests in other health regions. In addition to helping them in their inspections, Schatz says, the study will be used as a teaching tool by facilities in many health regions.

“They want to ensure that they’re consistent and all their workers are compliant with the training they provided regarding handling and moving the patients in their facilities,” she says.