May - June Issue
May 08, 2014

Persistence by union advocates yields law for safe patient handling

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Supervising nurse Michele Scott-Robertson, left, a member of the Professional Staff Association at Albany County Nursing Home, and Karen Wallace, director of physical therapy, demonstrate how to safely move a patient. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr.
Caption: Supervising nurse Michele Scott-Robertson, left, a member of the Professional Staff Association at Albany County Nursing Home, and Karen Wallace, director of physical therapy, demonstrate how to safely move a patient. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr.

Moving or lifting hospital­ized patients is a team effort of skill, preci­sion, strength and timing. Howard Sandau, a registered nurse in a surgical trauma intensive care unit, knows all too well the pain that can rip into a nurse when a move does not go as planned.

Sandau, a member of the United Federation of Teachers/Federation of Nurses, tore a rotator cuff while moving a patient several years ago. He was out of work nine months as he dealt with “excruciatingly painful surgery” and physical therapy.

The workers’ compensation — a fraction of his nurse’s pay -— was “quite a financial hit,” he said.

The news in April that the long sought-after Safe Patient Handling Act was passed as part of the state budget was a huge relief to Sandau and nurses like him. It was also a clear victory for the hundreds of union health care professionals who advocated for the law for a decade — and never gave up.

“We’re just thrilled it’s finally a reality,” said Sandau, who works at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn. He often walked the halls of the Legislative Office Building in Albany to meet with lawmakers and urge them to pass the bill.

“It’s something we’ve been work­ing on for a very, very long time,” he said. Sandau was named NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Member of the Year in 2012.

The act addresses safely lifting, moving and repositioning patients through the use of engineering con­trols, lifts, transfer aids or assistive devices. It requires the creation of a statewide workgroup by Jan. 1, 2015, and for each health care facil­ity to have a policy to ensure safe patient handling by Jan. 1, 2017.

]“After many years of fighting for an issue that seems so simple and sensible, we now have successful passage of this critical and impor­tant piece of legislation to our health care providers and, quite frankly, the patients themselves,” said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees health care issues for the statewide union.

A health care patient was the source of injury in 34,150 occu­pational musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) cases in private industry in 2011 — 11 percent of the total MSD cases for the year, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Almost all (98 per­cent) of the cases involving patient handling occurred within the health care and social assistance industry, composing 47 percent of the 70,890 total MSD cases in that industry.

Michele Scott-Robertson has been an RN for 22 years at Albany County Nursing Home, where she is a vice president of the Professional Staff Association, a NYSUT affiliate.

She’s been coming to NYSUT’s Health Care Lobby Day every year to speak with lawmakers about the physical and fi­nancial toll of injuries that keep nurs­ing staff out of work, or on the job but on long-term “light duty.”

“They can’t give care, they can’t pick up a tray,” she said. “We have people out for months from injuries on the job,” injuries that affect the back, neck and hip from trying to transfer patients, she said. Patients can be injured, too.

Using safe patient handling equipment, “will be a huge savings,” Scott-Robertson said. When regular staff are out due to injuries, “You pay a lot of overtime and you pay a lot of agency staff.”

Nurses and aides at the nursing home often use older, mechanized lifts that still require the assistance of two staff to lift, move or pivot a pa­tient. Or they may work together to manually lift a patient into a stand­ing position. “It’s pretty unpredict­able. You never know when they’re going to buckle up on you and then your back gives up ...You go down,” Scott-Robertson said.

For the facilities that acquire safe patient handling equipment, ma­chines will do the work.

Nurses and aides will be trained in how to properly use the equip­ment, said Scott-Robertson. “Once that team is set up it’s going to be great.”

Barbara Lipsky, president of the 600-member Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Suffolk County, said the union has seen “many people who have back problems from moving patients.”

Lipsky also noted it costs the em­ployer more when staff is out on sick time and another nurse must cover the shifts. But when the hospital doesn’t hire a replacement, the bur­den shifts to nursing staff who are on duty. “It puts more workload on the nurses and then they’re at risk of injury,” she said.

Hospital respiratory therapists, nurses aides and transport person­nel, all who move a lot of patients, are also affected, Lipsky said.


The Safe Patient Handling Act covers all hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic treatment centers and clinics licensed under Article 28 of the Public Health Law, including state-operated group homes and health care units in prisons.

The workgroup membership in­cludes the commissioner of health, commissioner of labor, health care providers, employee representatives of nurses and certified ergonomic evalua­tion specialists.

A report must be submitted to the commissioner of health by July 1, 2015, to identify sample Safe Patient Handling (SPH) policies and best prac­tices, along with resources and tools.

By Jan. 1, 2016, all covered facili­ties must establish a SPH committee, and one-half of the members must be frontline, non-managerial employees.

Facilities must establish a SPH pol­icy by Jan. 1, 2017, and consider the feasibility of incorporating SPH equip­ment when construction or remodeling occurs.