You can’t change the laws of physics: lifting patients and back injuries

Nurses and nursing assistants have difficult jobs that include long hours and intense physical activity. Caring for patients is strenuous work.

According to an online article from NPR, “Nursing employees suffer more debilitating back and other body injuries than almost any other occupation, and most of those injuries are caused by lifting and moving patients.”

Is it ever safe to manually lift a patient?

Even if you practice the standard lift recommended by the CDC, the weight of the average adult far exceeds the recommended maximum of 35 pounds as a safe amount to lift. Lifting weight that exceeds 35 pounds puts you in danger of suffering back injuries which are particularly costly for nurses.

According to the US Department of Labor, nursing assistants are among the most reported cases in the nation of musculoskeletal disorders by profession.

Even though the CDC reports that a safe lifting program including the use of different mechanical lifts can be “highly effective in reducing a health care worker’s exposure to heavy loads,” and the American Nurses Association agrees that “the use of technology, especially lifting devices is critical to” protecting nurses, not every hospital uses the recommended equipment or has enough equipment to protect their workers.

Traditional training: using body mechanics

For decades, nurses’ training programs and hospitals have contended that lifting and moving patients safely is all about using proper body mechanics. Patient handlers are taught to keep their backs straight, bending as needed at the knees and hips.

The idea was that by using these mechanics, patient handlers could protect themselves from back injuries.

Innovative research at The Ohio State University (OSU) is proving this old idea to be false. OSU’s Spine Research Institute has shown that no matter how good someone’s “body mechanics” are in manual lifting, pressure on the spine from lifting patients leads to back injuries.

There is simply no way to manually lift patients without negatively impacting the lifter’s back. This is true even if there is a team of people lifting.

Why couldn’t a team of say four people lift a patient safely with harming the lifters’ backs? The answer, again, comes down to the laws of physics.

When you lift along with others, it does reduce compression on your back, but not to safe levels. And lifting with others creates another problem – known as “sheer” – which is force pressing upon the spine from sideways angles.

Repetitive damage over time

Sometimes patient handlers can point to one specific incident that resulted in a severe back injury. For example, you may have been asked to move an especially obese patient – and then suddenly felt severe pain in your back.

NPR reported on one such incident, in which a nurse heard something pop in her back and before long find herself unable to walk. She ended up having back surgery and leaving the nursing profession.

A more common scenario, however, is that an injury is not the result of one specific incident. Instead, microscopic tears in the disks in your back build up over time from lifting patients. The resulting scar tissue blocks nutrients from flowing to the disks, weakening them.

When this scar tissue builds up, leaves you vulnerable to injury. And so the specific incident that made you aware of the injury may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Needed: proper equipment and effective representation

The bottom line is that without appropriate use of lifting equipment, nurses and other patient handlers are at risk of injuries. It doesn’t matter how good your lifting technique is. Given the laws of physics, you are still at risk.

Hospitals and nursing homes have been slow to install equipment such as ceiling lifts that would help with lifting and moving patients. To be sure, there are money and space constraints that affect the installation of such equipment. But the research is increasingly shows that doing so is needed to protect workers who lift patients from back injuries.


It is true that nurses suffer frequent back injuries, mostly due to lifting and moving patients. So why do their workers’ compensation claims get denied so frequently?

One reason is the same for any injury in any occupation: money. Insurance companies don’t make their profits by paying out claims. They make money by collecting premiums and denying and minimizing claims whenever possible.

Regarding nurses, the most common reason for claim denials is that the injuries don’t occur at work, so workers’ compensation doesn’t cover those injuries.

Back injuries are particularly problematic regarding workers’ compensation claims, because, more than many other injury types, back injuries often occur over a long period of time and it is difficult to pin down the exact cause.

If you suffered a back injury from lifting patients, don’t delay in getting legal counsel. Your attorney can’t change the laws of physics, but can guide you through the process of pursuing the workers’ compensation benefits you deserve.

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