7 Tips Nurses Should Know About Safe Patient Handling

Sara Lundwall Swenson, MS, APRN, ACNPC-AG, PCCN


Am Nurs Journal. 2020;15(5) 

In This Article

7 Safety Tips

As you work within your organization to develop policies and procedures that protect you and your colleagues from injury, keep these seven tips in mind when moving patients.

1 In This Age of Do-it-yourself, Don't

Sharing the load—with lift teams or a mechanical assist device—decreases the compression strain on your spine. A quick-but-imperfect way to estimate if you need help with patient handling is to assess the patient's ability to assist with moving, and then consider the weight you'll have to support. If you're shifting more than 35 pounds of a patient's weight (the weight of a cinder block or a midsize microwave), call for reinforcements. Remember that you can't safely lift a patient alone because you can't keep the weight close to your center of gravity. Make mechanical lift devices part of the "reinforcement" team.

In addition to helping with the actual task of moving a patient, coworkers can help ensure adherence to organization policies. Nurses are more likely to use safe patient handling techniques if they have coworkers' and management's support. Peer pressure, management guidelines (such as a "no-lift" policy), and the risk of back pain can all influence nurses' motivation to use mechanical lift devices. And a supportive environment aligns with the first of the interprofessional national standards the ANA has recommended for safe patient handling: Establish a culture of safety.

2 Know That Injury Isn't Always From a Single Event

Yes, you can throw out your back with overexertion from a grand heave or lift, but repetitive lifting of lighter loads can have a cumulative damaging effect on your spine. Frequent biomechanical stressors can outpace your body's ability to repair itself (similar to the mechanism of a stress fracture). The concept of cumulative damage is probably one of the least familiar principles of safe patient handling, making it the most likely to incapacitate healthcare workers.

3 Remember That Body Mechanics Aren't Enough

Although practicing proper body mechanics in general (such as raising the bed to at least knuckle height to assess patients) is important, it doesn't provide protection from injury when lifting is required. The significant amount of weight involved and the often-awkward positions patient handling requires make manual lifting techniques inadequate at reducing injury risks. Again, the hard-and-fast rule is that manually lifting a patient by yourself isn't safe, and it can be dangerous even with coworkers' help.

4 Don't Accept Injuries as "Part of the Job"

Occupational injuries are never "just part of the job." You have the right to protect your body, and your employer has an obligation to ensure your safety. The nursing culture tends to prioritize patients' needs above those of nurses, but when you protect yourself from harm you can be a better caregiver. Think of it this way: You can be a more effective nurse in the short-term and the long-term if you maintain your musculoskeletal integrity. Your employer benefits as well: Investing in nurses' long-term health (by providing safe patient handling training and mechanical assist devices) costs less than paying for shortsighted decisions in workers' compensation claims, lost workdays, modified duty days, and high nurse turnover from fatigue and injury.

5 Take the Time and Space to do it Right

Nurses frequently work under tremendous time pressure, but patient lifting isn't an area where you want to take shortcuts. Using mechanical lift devices may take more time than manual lifting, but that extra time helps ensure not only your safety but also the patient's safety.

Space limitations also can increase the risk of musculoskeletal injury. The ANA's third interprofessional standard for safe patient handling recommends that employers redesign patient spaces to accommodate assistive equipment. Give yourself—and the equipment—enough room to maneuver without needing to use any awkward positions, such as stooping, reaching, twisting, or bending. If patient spaces in your organization don't allow you to do this, advocate for change.

6 Know Where Lifts are and how to use Them

Using mechanical assist lift devices is tied to adequate funding for increased availability, but the human factor also should be considered. You're more likely to use a lift device if you know which to use, where it is, and how to operate it. (See Give them a lift.)

7 Report Injuries as Soon as Possible

Rules about reporting injuries vary based on state and organization policies, but a good start is to contact your state's occupational health department and your employer's employee health department for information about reporting parameters. Some organizations may mandate that injuries be reported within 24 hours. Also keep in mind that workers' compensation claims have a limited window (about 30 days) between the date an injury occurs and the date you file a claim.

You shouldn't feel silenced or ashamed to report a work-related injury. Reporting injuries when they happen can help identify trends that lead to a safer work environment. In fact, monitoring healthcare worker injuries and accommodating an employee's return to work after an injury are part of ANA's seventh interprofessional safe patient handling standard. Even if you're not sure whether an injury is work-related—or if you don't know what counts as a work-related injury—report it because the consequences of not doing so (for example, no workers' compensation to defray medical costs, lack of accommodations for you in your workplace, and little meaningful change to protect other nursing staff) are costly.