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News Stories

Patient lifting leads to high injury rates for nurses in California

When most people in Irvine think of physically grueling jobs, they may not think of nursing. However, this occupation takes an undeniable physical toll. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nurses suffer significantly higher rates of overexertion injuries than the majority of other professionals.

In 2011, nursing professionals reported double the average rate of these serious workplace injuries. In 2010, they lost more time from work due to back or musculoskeletal pain than any other workers. Sadly, most of these injuries can be traced back to one strenuous task: patient handling.


Nurses are typically trained to use proper body mechanics to lift patients while avoiding injury. Unfortunately, according to National Public Radio, this may not be enough to prevent injury due to the following factors:

  • Nurses often have to lean over to reach and lift patients. This can increase force on the spine, raising the risk of disk injury.
  • When lifting a patient out of bed, a nurse may be more than a foot from the patient’s center of mass. This increases the strain on the nurse’s musculoskeletal system.
  • About seven out of ten Americans are obese or overweight, and some patients weigh over 300 pounds. Consequently, nurses are often required to move weights that they cannot physically handle.
  • Nurses may suffer gradual microscopic muscle tears without realizing any injury has occurred. Over time, these minor traumas can lead to serious repetitive stress lifting injuries.

NPR reports that even team lifting procedures may not protect nurses from injury. Team lifts reduce the weight that each participant must bear and lower compression forces on the spine. However, they also expose the spine to lateral forces, which it is less equipped to handle.


Several other variables may exacerbate the dangers inherent to patient lifting, according to the CDC. The American workforce is aging, and the average registered nurse in the U.S. is 44 years old. These older workers may be less able to handle heavy weights or less likely to recover successfully after a serious injury. Nursing shortages, which are projected to continue at least until 2025, also increase the physical burden on the available nurses.


California has taken one key step toward addressing this risk by requiring set nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals that provide acute care. A study published in The International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health estimates that this law has reduced annual injuries among registered nurses by 32 percent. After the law was implemented, the number of reported injuries per 10,000 workers dropped from 176 to 120.

Unfortunately, this still represents a high injury rate, and research suggests that distributing lifting among more nurses is not necessarily a solution. According to NPR, research into the mechanics of patient handling reveals that the use of lifting machines is the only way to move patients safely. Sadly, many hospitals have been slow to invest in this technology or make it widely available to their workers.


Lifting injuries can be debilitating or even career ending. This makes it critical for victims of these injuries to pursue the full amount of workers’ compensation that may be available. This compensation may be able to address medical costs, income loss and expenses associated with vocational retraining. For assistance documenting the injury, calculating its long-term costs and putting together a claim, injured workers may benefit from consulting with an Orange County workers’ compensation attorney.