Nursing homes are the first industry to get government guidelines that suggest ways to reduce workplace injuries, replacing the legal requirements Congress rolled back two years ago after businesses complained they were too burdensome and costly.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines were released Thursday and urge nursing homes to limit manual lifting of patients and illustrate 22 options that would help their workers avoid strain and repetitive-stress injuries from lifting and repositioning.
Ergonomics-related injuries account for about a third of all 1.7-million job injuries annually. Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants are among those most at risk, just behind truck drivers.
"Nursing home workers are suffering too many ergonomics-related injuries," OSHA administrator John Henshaw said. "But the experiences of many nursing homes provide a basis for taking action now to better protect these workers."
A disclaimer says the guidelines are "advisory in nature and informational in context. They are not a new standard or regulation and impose no new legal requirements."
Labor unions, which fought for government regulations requiring employers to make changes to work stations, said some companies won't improve conditions unless forced.
Any industry changes will be "very uneven," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 110,000 nursing home workers.
Health services jobs are among the most dangerous, with an injury and illness rate of 7.2 per 100 workers in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing jobs ranked higher, posting an overall rate of 8.1 per 100 workers.
Nursing home operators said the guidelines are realistic, balancing patients' needs with workers' safety.
"When we talk about ergonomic safety for our staff, we aren't talking about moving boxes. We are talking about moving real people," said Charles Roadman II, president and chief executive of the American Health Care Association, which represents nearly 12,000 nursing facilities.
The guidelines suggest "simple, common sense modifications to equipment or procedures that do not require a lot of time or resources." Besides lifting and transferring patients, tasks that might need modification include lifting and lowering food trays, waste collection, pushing heavy carts and stocking supplies.
Federal safety advice for poultry processing plants and grocery stores are among others to be issued.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao promised voluntary guidelines for injury-prone industries last year as a compromise between business groups that chafed under Clinton-era regulations, and labor unions that want government rules to address carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other health problems associated with repetitive motion, awkward postures and contact stress.