Work Injuries for Nurses and Care Workers – Your Questions Answered [with Video]

What are the most common types of shoulder, neck and back injuries in the healthcare sector?

More so than any other profession, nurses and care workers are at serious risk of sustaining career-ending and life-altering injuries while performing their everyday work-related tasks. It’s a well known fact within the profession that many nurses and health carers are forced to end their caring profession early against their will due to serious neck, shoulder or back pain arising out of work-induced musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

The types of shoulder, neck and back injuries that are regularly encountered in the caring professions are:

  • lower back strain;
  • spinal cord damage;
  • bulging, herniated or slipped discs;
  • damaged vertebrae;
  • damaged muscles, ligaments, and tendons;
  • rotator cuff injuries; and
  • trapped or pinched nerves.

How are work-related injuries caused to healthcare workers?

One of the most common causes of nurses and healthcare workers sustaining shoulder, neck and back injuries in the workplace is the process of transferring, turning or lifting patients, either by cumulative injury – by lifting over and over in the same manner day after day – or by a single specific incident, such as lifting or transferring an excessively heavy patient, or attempting to save a patient from falling.

Routine tasks such as lifting, transferring or turning patients, moving patients from wheelchair to bed and back, or from a commode to a hospital chair and back, are all frequent causes of excessive spinal load pressure which can result in serious neck, shoulder and back injury.

What should be done by your employer to minimize the risk?

Manual patient handling is inherently unsafe and is directly responsible for most MSDs encountered in nurses and care workers. For this reason, a responsible employer will be proactive in doing all things possible to minimize the risk in the workplace.

There is a growing consensus that body mechanics training, often the sole answer provided by the health care industry, is ineffective. At the very least, it’s only part of the answer. That said, training in proper body mechanics is nevertheless an important component in providing effective risk reduction solutions, particularly the provision of training in the use of the “lift team” method.

Patient handling can be carried out most safely with the use of assistive equipment and devices that minimize the inherent hazards. Ergonomic intervention through the use of mechanical devices such as walking belts, ceiling lift systems and mechanical hoists and slings to aid in patient lifting and transferring tasks should also be employed.

Lifting and transferring devices should be assessed as to suitability for the task to be accomplished by reference to their safety and stability for both the patient and care giver, and an adequate number of devices should be made available to the nurses and care workers that will be using them.

Are MSDs an occupational hazard that healthcare workers just have to take on the chin?

Just because there are well known inherent risks in carrying out day-to-day healthcare tasks, this doesn’t mean that you are not entitled to be compensated if you suffer an injury as a consequence of one of them.

If, as is so often regrettably the case, your employer has failed to provide adequate staffing levels, or has not provided you with adequately trained co-workers, or has not made available enough proper lifting equipment such as hoists, slings or other lifting devices, they will have failed both in their common law duty of care to you and they will also have breached their statutory obligations under the relevant health and safety legislation.

If my employer has provided equipment and training are they off the hook if I get injured at work?

As anyone who works in the healthcare sector (whether public or private) knows, the demands imposed on nurses and care workers in their day-to-day activities, coupled with strained resources, means that best practice cannot always be followed while striving to get the job done, whether this is as a result of staff shortages or a lack of enough proper equipment to go round.

Even where healthcare professionals are fully trained in lifting techniques, they are regularly placed in situations where, for example, they have to lift patients with the assistance of domestic staff members who are untrained in these techniques.

Likewise, if there are not enough lifting aids or devices having regard to the number of patients to be cared for, nurses and care workers will inevitably be forced to take short cuts to make sure that the patients are not the ones bearing the brunt of the failure to provide proper resources.

For these reasons you should not assume that, just because your employer has claimed that your injuries were down to a failure to use proper lifting techniques or equipment, you don’t have a case.

A healthcare solicitor who specializes in representing victims of personal injuries in the workplace will be able to work with you in investigating the circumstances of your case to establish what shortcomings on your employer’s behalf exist to fix them with liability for your injuries.

My employer says that I only have myself to blame for my injuries. Does this mean that I have no entitlement to make a claim?

Once you report a work-related injury to your employer, one of the most predictable responses is that you will be told that you are to blame because, for example, you didn’t call another co-worker to assist you, or you didn’t use appropriate lifting techniques, or you didn’t employ proper equipment to carry out the task that gave rise to injuring yourself.

Even if it’s the case that you bear some fault for what has happened to you, this does not mean that your claim for compensation will not succeed. For this reason it is extremely important to contact a solicitor specialising in work-related personal injuries as soon as your employer denies liability.

How long do I have to bring a claim if I’ve injured myself at work?

If your injuries have been caused by a single workplace incident, such as attempting to lift a very heavy patient or preventing a patient from falling, the period that you have to commence your claim is generally two years from the date on which the incident occurred.

Things become considerably more complicated, however, if your injuries are cumulative in nature. For instance, if you’re suffering from neck, back or shoulder pain as a result of some task at work which you’ve been doing over and over on a daily basis for several years, it’s probable that your symptoms didn’t develop overnight. Often times a nagging pain will develop into a debilitating injury over several months or even years.

In cases such as this the two-year period within which you must commence your claim for compensation will be deemed to have commenced when your injuries became “significant”. As there’s no statutory definition of what “significant” means, this has to be determined having regard to the circumstances of each case.

If you don’t commence your claim within the two-year period which applies to your case your claim will become statute-barred which will result in your entitlement to be compensated being completely extinguished. For this reason you should contact a healthcare solicitor who specialises in personal injuries claims without delay so that appropriate steps can be taken to be sure that you get paid the compensation that you deserve.

What should I do if I’m thinking of a bringing a claim against my employer?

Once you’ve made your application to the Injuries Board, hopefully your employer will do the honourable thing by admitting liability for your injuries, meaning that the only question that will arise will be how much compensation you are entitled to.

However, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You should always bear in mind that in the Irish legal system if an employer denies responsibility for an employee’s work-related injuries the burden of proof lies with the employee.

For this reason before making your employer aware of your intention to make a claim for personal injuries you should take photographs of your workplace to be able to give a good idea of the type of work environment you were forced to work in when the accident happened.

If there was any specific aid or device involved you should also get photographs of that. You should also record how many of these devices were available to staff members at the time when you suffered your injury. You’ll often find that there’s an impressive increase in lifting equipment such as hoists and slings made available to workers after a claim is submitted.

You should also talk to any work colleagues who were working with you when you suffered your injuries and ask them to write down their recollection of events while it’s still fresh in their mind as this could prove to be extremely helpful evidence if you need to call them as witnesses later on.

If your injuries have resulted in your absence from work for more than three consecutive days, or if you’ve returned to work within three days but aren’t able to carry out your normal duties due to neck, shoulder or back pain, you should also ensure that your accident has been reported to the Health and Safety Authority.

To be confident that you’ve taken all measures necessary to ensure that your claim is successful you should make contact with healthcare solicitors specialising in work-related personal injuries to discuss your case and to get advice on what precautions should be taken before formally commencing the claim process.