Lighten the Load on Our Nurses for Better Health Care

Forty-five years ago today, I cast my vote in favor of one of the most important pieces of legislation ever: the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Passed by a Democratic U.S. Congress and signed by a Republican President, the "OSH Act" as it is known, stood for a radical proposition: workers should not have to choose between their livelihoods and their lives.

Prior to the OSH Act, workplace safety was a concept only familiar to those with a good union or an unusually goodhearted boss. There was no law saying your employer had to send you home every day in one piece.

The OSH Act changed that.

It made the Secretary of Labor legally responsible for confronting the dangerous, preventable hazards that affected the 55 million people in the workforce in 1970. America's workers finally had someone powerful who could fight for their safety--and that has made a world of difference.

Since 1970, America's workplace death rate has dropped from nearly 12,000 when the OSH Act passed to around 4,000 today. And our injury rate per worker dropped as well, from around 11 in a hundred workers to under 4 in a hundred.

But while saving almost 8,000 lives and the health of about one in 13 workers is a tremendous accomplishment -- there are still more than 4,000 lives lost every year and another one in 30 workers to protect. We still have too many dangers left to confront for us to rest.

Protecting our nurses and other health care workers is a great place to make an immediate impact.

Every day, nurses, nursing assistants, and other health care workers suffer injuries due to the strain of manually lifting their patients. The damage to these caregivers' backs, necks, arms, shoulders, and hips -- medically referred to as musculoskeletal disorders -- drives them from the jobs they love and changes the course of their lives. It also makes medical care more expensive because consumers end up paying for workers' compensation, training replacement nurses, and longer hospital stays due to patient falls.

The simple fact is that human beings are not very good at lifting heavy things. One comprehensive study of automotive workers found the maximum safe amount to lift on a regular basis is 35 lbs., or the weight of an average four-year old boy. But nurses are lifting far more than that--sometimes hundreds of pounds. And the cumulative strain they are under, around 1.8 tons per shift, is literally breaking their backs -- causing more than 20,000 missed days for nursing assistants last year and over 11,000 for registered nurses.

These injuries are foreseeable, preventable, and expensive. They are driving up costs and drive down patients' and caregivers' quality of life. Forty-five years after the U.S. Congress told the American public that you do not have to sacrifice your health to make a living, it is time for us to address this flagrant hazard.

That is why I, along with Senator Al Franken, recently reintroduced legislation to protect our nurses: The Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act (H.R. 4266/S.2408).

This simple bill directs the Secretary of Labor to issue a health and safety standard under the OSH Act that eliminates the unsafe and unnecessary practice of manual patient lifting. It would prevent thousands of injuries to nurses, protect patients from falls, and make our health care system more efficient because nurses are focused and pain-free.

This legislation borrows heavily from the work of tireless advocates for nurses and other health care workers. The American Nurses Association has been fiercely supportive of their members on this issue and convened a working-group of world-class experts to design a safe patient handling standard. The American Federation of Teachers has fought for their union-members, many of whom are nurses and other healthcare workers, who sacrifice their bodies for their patients. Public Citizen has laid out the financial and technological case for this standard. And we are especially indebted to the hospitals who have already adopted safe patient lifting standards, and who have shown what happens when health care facilities put workers and patients first.

Forty-five years ago, I helped write a promise into the American Dream: you do not have to risk your life or health to provide for yourself and your family. But that promise remains unfulfilled. The Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act will help us change that by ensuring nurses are no longer asked to exchange their health for their patients' health.