Strategies to Help Prevent Back Injuries in Staff

Sami Ahmed

Sami Ahmed, DPT, The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics

Given the nature of the work that caregivers perform in senior care communities, the risk of potential back injuries is always a concern. Staff who are injured may require treatment, physical therapy, and time off, which can strain an already stressed staffing model. Luckily, there are multiple ways that senior care communities can help to prevent back injuries in staff.

Why Back Injuries Occur During Caregiving

Sami Ahmed, DPT, physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, explains that back injuries are common in caregiving settings, and COVID-19 has even led to an increase in injuries. “We see a lot of cross coverage, even with our own staff, let alone at senior centers,” says Ahmed. “There’s a huge prevalence in back injuries, and with COVID-19 there’s been an increase in back strains and sprains.” Strains refer to an injury to the muscle, but a sprain occurs when a ligament that connects to the bone tears or stretches.

Caregivers may sustain acute injuries that are quick, short-term injuries. They might try to lift a load that’s too heavy and their muscular support system isn’t strong enough to support that load. “As we fatigue through the day, lifting a 100-pound load suddenly affects the body significantly more,” says Ahmed. As a result, mechanical low back sprains and strains are often diagnosed among caregivers. If those issues aren’t treated quickly, they can lead to herniated discs or other, more significant injuries.

Reducing Risks in Senior Care Settings

The lifting that senior care careers demand puts staff at an increased risk for back injuries, but senior care communities can help to reduce these risks. Ahmed notes that given the staffing challenges and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, more caregivers are attempting to lift and transfer residents independently. Ahmed teaches proper mechanics and transfer techniques, like keeping your center as gravity as close to the resident as possible.

He also notes the importance of thinking about movement patterns that need to happen before moving a patient. “There’s a conversation and thought process that goes to first sit the patient up, then adjust the caregiver’s body position, et cetera,” he explains. “If the caregiver will be doing that lift often, then we need to talk about outside of getting a lift, how can we rearrange furniture in the room and promote safe moving positions? We need to make sure our staff doesn’t have to keep their body away from the residents’ and put extra strain on their backs.”

Ahmed notes that Hoyer, manual, and hydraulic lifts can also help to reduce caregiver back injuries, but they can be relatively expensive to purchase. Hoyer lifts, for example, can cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. In addition to purchasing the lifts, facilities also need to ensure that staff are trained in how to use them properly.

The Value of Training

Training in lifting safety and best practices is an essential element to preventing back injuries in staff. The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics offers a consultation in which they will travel to a site, talk with staff, and do regular trainings on proper movement patterns and the best practices to avoid injuries. They will make sure that the staff is educated on how to avoid getting hurt, and that they also know where to get proper treatment if they ever are injured.

Ahmed recommends that senior care communities implement such trainings regularly. “In our surgery center, we have annual trainings that are now happening once a quarter,” he says. “We review the proper lifting technique with staff. Staffing also rotates, so we make sure that we’re able to give people the opportunity to get that education.”

He notes that quarterly trainings are often ideal, but the best frequency will vary depending on your facility.

The Importance of Back Injury Prevention

Staff back injuries can pose long-term challenges for senior care communities. Ahmed notes that a normal physical therapy treatment can run for six to eight weeks. Depending on the injury, a caregiver won’t necessarily be out of work for that time.

There are situations where caregivers may not be able to work, though. An acute sprain might require two to three weeks off of work, while a herniated disc could require a caregiver to be out of work for eight to ten weeks. “Missing a few weeks of work, or up to 10 to 12 weeks of work, is a substantial amount of time,” says Ahmed. “Get the training to avoid that.”

He ends with a word of caution. “The rate of mechanical low back injuries in the United States is rising, and our return to work after being out of work because of COVID-19 is making that rate rise even more.” He notes that educating staff on proper body mechanics while lifting can be helpful, but it’s also important to make sure that staff are taking care of themselves. “In our own practice, we’re seeing a rise in the number of referrals coming from other healthcare facilities. We can’t have a collapse of our healthcare system because everyone has low back pain.”

Topics: Featured Articles , Staffing , Training