Whose job is it to take care of the people who take care of others? Think about the pre-flight instructions from a flight attendant: “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” You have to take care of yourself first.

A health care worker can’t help others when they are sick or injured. Ironically, those who work in health care — whether it is the hospital, home or office setting — are more likely than most to be injured on the job. Every day, some 9,000 health care workers sustain a disabling injury while at work.

Sprains, strains and everlasting pain

True to the statistics, the No. 1 concern is an injury to the back. In fact, musculoskeletal injuries — to the back, neck, shoulders, wrists or knees — can be career-enders for nurses and other health care workers. Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants are actually at higher risk than construction workers for these types of injuries.

What’s the solution? Workers should pay attention to workplace safety policies and whenever possible, use assistive equipment like inflatables, transfer chairs and body slings. One way to keep safe is to think S.A.F.E.

Spot the hazard: The top three hazards are unsafe body mechanics, trying to lift something too heavy and repetitive motions. Learn proper techniques and know your body’s limits.

Assess the risk: If you are tired, if there are items in your path or if the load is too heavy, don’t lift.

Find the safest way: Bend at the knees, lift with the legs and keep the back straight.

Every day: It is part of your job to be safe at work. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts, and regularly review safety procedures and protocols.

Beware of sharp attacks

Nearly two-thirds of all nurses have reported being accidentally stabbed with a hypodermic needle. Although a needle puncture can be deadly, serious issues are rare, and almost 98 percent of unintentional punctures by needles do not lead to infection. Even so, there is a special federal law designed to protect against these injuries: the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act of 2000. Workplaces that fail to heed the law can see fines as high as $70,000.

Needlestick injuries occur most often due to carelessness, especially when needles have not been properly discarded.

What is being done? Early last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety came together to recommend the use of blunt-tip suture needles instead of standard sharp-tip needles.

Health care workers should receive proper vaccinations and training and protect themselves from infection by observing procedures for sanitation, cleanliness and syringe safety.

Biting, squeezing and scratching

Then there are the stories about angry and agitated patients — and yes, even hostile and violent visitors. Dealing with people’s emotions is a large part of a health care worker’s routine, but it shouldn’t lead to injury.

According to the U.S Department of Labor, health care workers face the highest risk of assault of any occupational group.

What are health care workers to do? Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to exits and leave doors open. Maintain distance from a clearly agitated patient. Do not challenge the agitated person or try to reason with them. Enlist the patient’s friends or relatives. And never turn your back on any patient who is angry.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health offers free classes, including on health-related subjects such as Blood-borne Pathogens; Creating a Safety Culture; Slips, Trips and Falls; and Pandemic Flu Preparedness. Call (602) 542-1769 to register.

• Darin Perkins is director for the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), a position he has held since August of 1998. His previous experience includes eight years as a safety compliance officer, health compliance officer, and supervisor of the industrial hygiene compliance section at ADOSH.

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