Representative John Conyers  (D-Mich.) has once again introduced in the House of Representatives a bill that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to promulgate a safe patient handling and injury prevention standard. The “Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act of 2009” has reignited the debate over the proper approach to ensuring employee and patient safety in the health care industry.

The Health Care Worker Protection Act would require OSHA, not later than one year from the date of promulgation of the bill into law, to publish a proposed rule to require health care employers to, among other things:

  • use engineering controls to perform patient lifting and repositioning of patients and to eliminate all manual lifting of patients by health care workers, except where the use of safe patient handling practices is demonstrated to compromise patient care;
  • implement a safe patient handling and injury prevention plan including hazard identification, risk assessments, and control measures; and
  • obtain input from direct-care registered nurses, health care workers, and employee representatives in developing and implementing the safe patent handling and injury prevention plan, including the purchase of equipment.

The legislation would also provide specific whistleblower protections for any health care worker who in good faith reports a violation or suspected violation of the Act. Under the legislation, OSHA would have to finalize the safe patient handling rule within two years from the date of passage.

This is not the first time that this or similar legislation has been introduced in Congress. However, with the Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Democratic control of the White House, there is greater momentum behind the bill. In addition, the Acting Head of OSHA, Jordan Barab, recently signaled a willingness to consider industry-specific ergonomics rulemakings to deal with high-hazard industries.

Almost a decade ago, OSHA finalized an ergonomics standard that would have required all health care employers to implement an ergonomics program, including the elements of management commitment, employee participation, hazard assessment and control, and medical management. It also would have mandated “work restriction protection,” which would have required that certain pay and benefits for employees be maintained for periods they are out of work due to a work-related injury.

Congress and President George W. Bush disapproved of the final standard, however, and in 2001 it was rescinded under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). As a result, OSHA is prohibited from promulgating an ergonomics standard that is “substantially the same” as the rescinded standard. No one knows precisely what those words mean, but they are sure to be hotly debated over the next several months.

The Acting Head of OSHA recently suggested that OSHA is considering an industry-by-industry approach to ergonomics as an acceptable method to pursue some ergonomics rulemaking in light of the CRA. The health care industry is a prime target for OSHA attention. It has high musculoskeletal injury rates, compared with the average of all of private industry. In addition, just a few years ago OSHA published its “Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders: Guidelines for Nursing Homes,” which detailed a variety of ergonomic controls for employers to implement to assist in patient handling.

Health care employers stay tuned.  There will certainly be more on ergonomics and the health care industry over the next several months.