America’s Most Dangerous Workplace Isn’t Where You’d Expect

Fishing boats and coal-mine accidents grab headlines, but far more workers are getting hurt in a quieter, calmer place.

An auxiliary nurse assists a patient in a wheelchair.
National Journal
Patrick Reis
Nov. 8, 2013, 2:55 a.m.

Nurs­ing-home work­ers don’t risk drown­ing like Arc­tic fish­er­men. Nor do they face be­ing trapped in col­lapsed coal mines or crushed by heavy ma­chinery. But, at least by one meas­ure, nurs­ing homes are the most dan­ger­ous work­places in the na­tion.

More than 7 per­cent of full-time nurs­ing-home em­ploy­ees suffered a non­fatal work­place in­jury or ill­ness in 2012, ac­cord­ing to Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics data re­leased Thursday. The in­jury rate was even high­er at nurs­ing fa­cil­it­ies op­er­ated by state gov­ern­ments, where 13.1 per­cent of full-time work­ers ex­per­i­enced an ill­ness or in­jury.

Private sec­tor nurs­ing homes’ in­jury rate (7.3 per­cent, to be ex­act) is more than three times the rate of miners (2 per­cent), and double that of con­struc­tion work­ers (3.6 per­cent).

Nurs­ing-home dangers garner less pub­lic at­ten­tion — and in­fin­itely few­er shows on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel — than oth­er in­dus­tries, be­cause the in­jur­ies oc­cur in far less dra­mat­ic fash­ion.

The lead­ing cause of in­jur­ies are mus­cu­lar or skelet­al dis­orders caused by the re­peated lift­ing and mov­ing of pa­tients, said Bar­bara Dawson, pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an In­dus­tri­al Hy­giene As­so­ci­ation.

The work­ers also risk con­tract­ing pa­tients’ dis­eases — in­clud­ing HIV and hep­at­it­is — if they are stuck by ex­posed needles. In ad­di­tion, nurses and oth­er in­dustry em­ploy­ees face ex­pos­ure to tuber­cu­los­is and oth­er air­borne dis­eases, which are es­pe­cially com­mon among nurs­ing-home pa­tients.

Dawson said new and bet­ter beds at nurs­ing homes are help­ful in ad­dress­ing the risks of mov­ing pa­tients. And in a fur­ther bid to re­duce the in­jury rate, Rep. John Con­yers, D-Mich., in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion that would dir­ect the Labor De­part­ment to set stand­ards to pro­tect work­ers.

The BLS data re­leased Thursday also un­der­score the dif­fi­culty of de­term­in­ing the danger pre­val­ent in each work­place. The data do not re­flect the sever­ity of an in­jury, and in­clude non­fatal in­cid­ents.

Nine nurs­ing-home work­ers were killed on the job in 2012, ac­cord­ing to BLS data re­leased in Au­gust. Thirty-four work­ers in the com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dustry were killed dur­ing that span, as were 38 miners and 25 oil- and gas-drilling em­ploy­ees.

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