Preventing patient lift injuries

By Anina-Marie Warrener, Soter Analytics
Wednesday, 03 August, 2022

Preventing patient lift injuries

Studies have linked a higher risk of pain and injury in the healthcare sector to a worker’s decision to leave their job. Employee turnover is a problem in many industries but in health care it is even more so.

Recent data shows that in Australia the turnover rate for residential aged care workers is 29% and for registered nurses it is 35%. Quality workers are already in short supply and the cost of replacing even a single nurse in Australia can be as high as $104,686. Thus, it is paramount to implement solutions that reduce the risk of manual handling injuries in healthcare workers.

Musculoskeletal injuries are being reported in healthcare workers at a far higher rate than many other industries. A healthcare worker is more likely to sustain a musculoskeletal injury than a mining, construction or manufacturing worker.

Lifting people is an unavoidable aspect of working in the healthcare industry. Nurses, paramedics and aged care workers regularly lift weights that, in any other industry, would be assisted by equipment. That is why patient manual handling poses one of the highest injury risks out of all industries with the most common types of musculoskeletal injuries sustained by healthcare workers being lower back injuries, strains, rotator cuff injuries and tendinitis.

One study found that as many as 83% of all injuries sustained in the healthcare sector were as a result of musculoskeletal factors. Every year, 55% of nurses experience lower back pain and 44% experience shoulder pain. Research shows that some healthcare workers spend as much as 20 minutes out of every hour with their back in an awkward position.

So what can be done to reduce manual handling injuries in healthcare workers? Current market approaches to the problem can be broken down into four categories: equipment and aides, policy and procedure, manual handling training and movement coaching. Let’s look at some of the options in these categories and their benefits and drawbacks.

Equipment and aides

Some companies have successfully reduced or eliminated ergonomic injuries through supplying additional equipment to assist workers with lifting patients. These aides include things like mechanical hoists or slings and low-friction mats. The downside of many of these items are that they mostly require more than one worker to use them. The healthcare industry is often understaffed and researchers have found that workers will forgo equipment that requires two people to operate to move a patient because even if there is no one there to help them the patient still needs to be moved.

Policy and procedure

One way of overcoming this problem is implementing a strict two-person lift policy; requiring nurses, paramedics and aged care workers never to lift a patient alone. Many companies in the healthcare sector already impose two-person or no lift policies, urging staff to use equipment to hoist and move patients. However, some studies have shown that workers often do not abide by these policies. Health care is unpredictable, with workers being responsible for the health of frail, ill or otherwise high-risk patients. Usually, nurses, paramedics and aged care workers care deeply about their patients and when the choice is between helping a patient or following a policy most would choose to help, even if they do so at risk of injury.

Manual handling training

Most healthcare organisations incorporate some form of manual handling training into their onboarding processes for workers. Traditional manual handling training is usually conducted in a classroom setting and teaches basic ergonomic techniques for correct lifting and bending. Whilst training does somewhat increase awareness, researchers found that it is not likely to be retained afterwards and is unlikely to create any sustainable behavioural change in the long term.

Movement coaching

Another option is implementing one-on-one movement coaching; employing an ergonomics expert to work with healthcare staff at improving their own behaviours. One-on-one coaching is much more effective in creating behavioural change in the way in which healthcare workers bend, lift and twist when moving patients. However, this can be a very costly option (as much as $1500 per worker) that is not scalable in large organisations.


Manual handling injuries can be prevented with an integrated data-driven approach incorporating smart wearable technology, machine learning and predictive analytics. This will help address the cause of injuries and reduce the ergonomic risks before they can even begin to lead to injury.

AI-driven wearable technology is shaking things up seeing healthcare organisations around the world weaving wearables into their processes. Solutions to assist workers to learn more about their movements, understand them and help reduce their risk of injury — permanently.

New advances in ergonomic training using sensors and biofeedback are forging a step change in the healthcare sector; targeting a decrease in absenteeism and turnover as result of manual handling injury reduction. Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), coaching healthcare workers to self-correct their movements in real time and avoid ergonomic injuries is stimulating an engaging personalised pathway to sustainable behavioural change.

A hospital in Australia noticed that caregivers in the endoscopy department were suffering a higher rate of shoulder and elbow injuries. The workers were unsure how they sustained these injuries. The hospital partnered with AI-driven wearable safety tech developer Soter Analytics to trial their solution SoterCoach. They fitted 10 workers in the endoscopy department with wearable safety devices. The data collected showed that on their busiest days, they could perform up to 53 hazardous movements per hour.

Comparable labour-intensive departments would normally perform only five hazardous movements per hour. Combined with participant feedback the data highlighted one specific task aligned with the Soter report of excess arm elevation. The high result coincided with when caregivers were hanging scopes in drying cabinets.

The hospital implemented a small modification to the task by adjusting how caregivers hold the scopes when placing them in the drying cabinets. After applying this strategy the hazardous movements per hour were reduced to just 4.2 per hour and there have been no reported injuries to date.

Image credit: © Olson

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