Nurses are stepping up their mission to improve working conditions and patient care. They are working toward safer ways to transport patients and seeking to stop forced overtime. They want safe staffing levels in hospitals. And, they are shouting out for more help to serve students in large school districts where, one nurse says, "nursing is squeezed to the max."
Most of all, they need the state's lawmakers to do the right thing.
NYSUT members, many of whom attended the Professional Issues Forum on Health Care last month, will meet with state legislators during the union's Health Care Lobby Day in May to advocate for four bills:
Safe patient handling needs
Creating a safe patient handling task force would get the state on track to address issues of moving patients with lifts, rather than manually, to protect them and staff.
Marianne Novak, RN, a quality assurance nurse at Albany County Nursing Home, said many hospitals now have tracks for hydraulic lifts, and some are even no-lift facilities. Others use mobile lifts shared among floors.
"It's safer for the resident and certainly safer for staff," said Novak, a member of the ACNH Professional Staff Association.
Last spring the Safe Patient Handling Act passed the Assembly, but not the Senate. It would require health care facilities to provide education and training on proper lifting and patient maneuvering techniques, installation of appropriate equipment and ongoing analysis.
"Our health care professionals know what's safest for them and best for their patients. NYSUT is using its resources and lobbying strength to bring about needed changes," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees health and safety issues.
In May 2010, the University at Buffalo, part of the SUNY system, opened a Safe Patient Handling Lab and Training Center with a range of equipment to service patients who need help getting up from a seated position and those who cannot stand up at all. UB has a large School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Demonstrating safe techniques in Albany, Novak and union colleague Cheryl Valente, RN, used a team approach to slide a thick pad under a non-ambulatory patient. Ties on the pad are hooked to a lift, which carefully takes the patient from bed to chair with the guidance of the nurses.
"It reduces strain," said Valente. "We can transfer them to a shower chair." For patients who can't bear weight, it is safe transport.
The New York State AFL-CIO reports that facilities that have implemented safe handling policies have seen dramatic reduction in injury-related costs, as well as improved health care.
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration has documented that nurses lift an average of 1.8 tons per day, for example, through manually lifting or repositioning patients/residents. Eventually, this can cause debilitating back and other musculoskeletal injuries. Resulting costs spike in worker's compensation, lost workdays, staff turnover, shortened careers and staff replacement and retraining.
Say no to mandatory overtime
NYSUT also is urging the Legislature to pass Hours Worked by Home Care Nurses, which would extend protections of the no mandatory overtime bill for hospital nurses that NYSUT and other unions helped enact into law.
This bill would restrict the consecutive hours worked by nurses in a home care setting, except in emergencies. In testimony to lawmakers, home care nurses say they have been forced to work extra hours while on the job, sometimes leaving their own children at home without care. Working too many long hours can hamper clear decision-making, and, for rural nurses, can make it difficult to safely drive long routes home because of fatigue, nurses said.
The bill would not prohibit a nurse from working overtime voluntarily.
NYSUT is also pushing for passage of the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act, which establishes a safe, minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratio in hospitals and health care facilities.
The connection between nursing staffing hours and the quality of patient care reveals itself in research that shows the rate of injury, infection and death decrease with increased licensed nursing staff.
More school nurses
NYSUT is pushing for Minimum School Nurse Staffing Standards, which would require the Big Five school districts — New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse — to employ at least one school nurse per building, and consult with a professional nursing association to determine the need for additional staff.
Ann O'Hara, a member of the Syracuse Teachers Association, is a school nurse in a district that has lost 24 percent of its nursing staff in the last year due to state budget cuts. Many pre-K sites have been blended with elementary schools, increasing the workload of the existing nurse.
"A lot of pre-K students have special needs," said O'Hara, a member of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council.
School nurses are dealing with a 40 percent increase in asthma and a 50 percent increase in diabetes in the last 10 years due to the childhood obesity epidemic, she said. Taking care of one child who is a brittle diabetic, for example, means testing sugars at least four times a day.
And then there is the paperwork. "Not documented: Not done" is O'Hara's work ethic. She frequently works unpaid overtime to fulfill documentation requirements because the school day is so busy.
"We're keeping kids safe all day," she said.