Nursing staff are highly likely to get injured on the job—and back injuries from moving and lifting patients are the primary cause. A series on NPR, Injured Nurses, explores this situation in more depth. At Biggam, Fox & Skinner, we see many of the people behind the statistics–like our client V.B., a certified wound care nurse who worked at a hospital in southwestern Vermont (see “A Nurse’s Story” below).
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing employees suffered more than 38,000 back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders that caused them to miss work in 2013. At the top of the list for musculoskeletal injuries were nursing assistants, with registered nurses ranked fifth—both ahead of firefighters, construction workers, and manufacturing workers. As part of their jobs, nursing staff regularly lift heavier loads than many industrial workers. Not all hospitals invest in patient-lifting equipment, and in those that do it’s not always readily available 24/7.
Attorney Kelly Massicotte notes that injured nurses may often overlook work restrictions out of a desire to help their patients. “This isn’t surprising,” says Kelly, “because most nurses care deeply about their patients and go out of their way to help them. When a patient falls or needs to get to a bathroom, there’s often no time to wait for the hospital’s lift team to arrive. Nurses automatically step in to help, often at considerable risk of injury to themselves.”
A Nurse’s Story
At Biggam, Fox & Skinner, we see many of the people behind these statistics. For example, our client, V.B., a certified wound care nurse, began having lower back pain in 2011 after taking care of an overweight patient for three months at a hospital in southwestern Vermont. She often had to hold up the patient’s leg by herself while tending his wound, and by doing this repeatedly she began feeling discomfort in her back. Treatment would sometimes take up to an hour and a half. V.B. would schedule him at the end of the day so she could go home immediately afterwards to heat her back. After many examinations, tests, and unsuccessful treatment with massages and pain relievers, her doctor recommended lumbar fusion surgery. However, despite having no history of back problems and never seeking medical treatment for her back before, her hospital’s workers’ compensation insurer claimed she had a degenerative condition because she couldn’t point to a specific work-related incident that caused the injury. They refused to pay for her surgery, and V.B. contacted attorney Heidi Groff at Biggam, Fox & Skinner. Heidi filed an appeal of the denial of V.B.’s claim with the Department of Labor to require the hospital through its insurer to pay for the surgery and all other related benefits. Heidi provided evidence that VB’s injury was work-related and was caused by gradual onset as a result of repeatedly lifting and holding her patient’s limb over three months. Ultimately, the claim denial was reversed and V.B.’s surgery was fully paid for. In addition, V.B. made a good recovery of money and was able to return to work as a nurse.
Edward Shattuck, St. Johnsbury, VT
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