When it comes to workplace injuries, nurses need to be their own best patient.
There’s a popular misconception that every person hurt on the job is taking advantage of the workers’ compensation system, that they are spending their workday sitting home watching game shows, eating bonbons and waiting for that next check to arrive in the mail. But I don’t believe this to be the case.
It’s my belief that the average American worker takes pride in their job, and wants to be on the job in order to put forth the best effort they can. And perhaps nowhere is that more self-evident than in the nursing profession. It’s hard to find a more dedicated group of individuals, men and women who often work 10-12 hour days caring for the well-being of patients, whether it’s in a hospital, nursing facility, or a private home. Nurses love their job and want to be on the job. But by the very nature of what they do, and where they do it, sadly this is not always the case.
Many of the approximately three million RN’s working across all industries face workplace hazards ranging from bending, stretching, and standing, lifting and moving patients. Factor in coming into contact with potentially harmful and hazardous substances, including drugs, diseases, radiation, accidental needle-sticks and cleaning chemicals, and you can see how a hospital is a virtual minefield of potential workplace injuries. And that’s in an environment nurses are familiar with. Have them visit a private home where they are unaware that little Johnny left a toy on the steps or that Fido likes to nip at people, and this opens up another scenario that nurses have to deal with.
According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, workplace hazards for RN’s resulted in 19,790 nonfatal injuries and illnesses that required at least one day away from work. The big hurt was due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which include injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs. In 2016, RN’s in the private industry experienced 8,730 days-away-from-work cases classified as MSDs. These MSDs occurred at an incidence rate of 46.0 cases per 10,000 full-time workers, significantly greater than the rate for all occupations (29.4 cases per 10,000 workers).
So now that we know accidents can happen, what do you do when they happen? The first thing is easy; file a notice, no matter how minor the injury may seem. Then make certain you retain a copy of that notice. But from there it gets a little tricky.
Unless you have a legal advocate on your side, you will have to navigate some often choppy waters on your own. Right off the bat the hospital is going to have you seen by one of their doctors, which right away should make you wary as that doctor is paid by the hospital. So where is the allegiance? And at this point, don’t be surprised if you find the hospital distancing themselves from you by inserting the insurance company to take over your case, armed with papers you probably shouldn’t sign, and suggesting a return-to-work program that probably isn’t in your best interest. They may also assign a Nurse Case Manager to monitor the situation. So by now you feel not only outnumbered but all alone. And all you want to do is get better and return to work.
The importance of having representation while everything is unfolding is paramount, not only in protecting your rights but also in protecting your job. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can empower you with the knowledge you need to do the right thing, including: making sure you are not forced into a return-to-work scenario that might not be in your best interest; that you get checked out by your own physician; that the need for a Nurse Case Manager is eliminated; that every legal document is carefully scrutinized; and that your privacy is upheld.
It’s important to remember that when you are injured on the job your employer-employee situation takes on a somewhat adversarial nature. You have now become a dollar sign. And when that happens, things can go south very fast. Here’s a classic example.
Several years ago a nurse with 20 years on the job working for a large hospital hurt her back while moving a patient from a gurney onto her bed — a task that nurses perform thousands of times every day. By the time she left work that day, she could hardly walk — or drive. Her husband had to lift her out of her car and carry her into their home and lay her on the floor.
This nurse, like all nurses, only wanted to get back to work, so she did not file a notice. She did report the injury to her supervisor when she went back to work the next day, but apparently nothing came of it. Then she hurt her back again barely a week later when she lifted another patient. She injured her back a third time a few days after that. And nine months later, that extremely dedicated nurse herself became a patient in the hospital where she worked when she had to have a lumbar interbody fusion operation, where a surgeon builds a metal cage around your spine.
Now, state laws require companies to cover employees’ medical bills when they are injured doing their jobs. Companies also have to pay workers’ compensation to support injured employees while they’re missing work — and missing their paychecks. But that never happened. Even though the hospital’s own medical staff concluded that she was hurt moving patients, the hospital’s lawyer disagreed, saying she actually hurt her back—and I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried—while lifting a dinner casserole out of her oven. But the bad news doesn’t stop there.
Hospital officials also said that as a result of this nurse’s back injury she was no longer fit to work. And while she was lying in her hospital bed, two days after excruciatingly painful back surgery, a hospital representative walked into her room and handed her a document saying the hospital was terminating her job. Her response; “I was so emotionally destroyed. Nursing isn’t just a job. It’s who you are.”
In some ways, a nurse’s dedication to her craft, and her burning desire to always be available to help those in need, can sometimes put them in a vulnerable position when an injury occurs. That’s when another party needs to enter the picture, to serve as an advocate to make sure things get done properly.