On July 9, 2018, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine published a study in a peer-reviewed medical journal indicating that “[p]hysician burnout is at least equally responsible for medical errors as unsafe medical workplace conditions.” Significantly, the study claimed that over 50 percent of participating physicians reported symptoms of burnout, and over 30 percent reported excessive fatigue. According to the study, odds of self-reported medical error were, unsurprisingly, higher for physicians with burnout or fatigue.
In addition to physician burnout and fatigue, other unique health and safety risks, such as caring for patients with limited mobility, blood-borne pathogens and needlesticks, and an increased likelihood of workplace violence, contribute to higher injury and illness rates in the healthcare industry. Moreover, caregivers may feel an ethical duty to put a patient’s health and safety above their own.
These findings underscore health and safety hazards typically facing employers in the healthcare industry, which could result in Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) violations as well as legal liability in several other areas (workers’ compensation, employee leaves of absence and disability-related issues, and medical malpractice, to name a few).
OSHA Guidance and Statistics
The healthcare industry consistently reports high rates of workplace safety and health issues. In September 2013, OSHA first issued guidance emphasizing that hospitals have historically been among the most hazardous places to work—with injury and illness rates higher than those in construction and manufacturing. Although these rates are down across the board, the rates for the healthcare industry, and hospitals in particular, are still much higher than the rate for private industry as a whole. For instance, in 2016, hospitals had 5.9 work-related injuries and illnesses for every 100 full-time employees, while the corresponding rate for private industry as a whole was only 2.9. According to OSHA’s self-assessment brochure for hospitals, this rate has a staggering impact on both safety and a company’s bottom line: “[t]he average hospital experiences $0.78 in workers’ compensation losses for every $100 of payroll.”
Accordingly, OSHA’s website contains a multitude of resources dedicated to health and safety in the healthcare industry, including a Compliance Assistance Quick Start and landing pages for healthcare facilities and clinicians.
Given these recent statistics and studies, employers in the healthcare industry may want to work on reducing potential liability. Employers can start by conducting a risk assessment of their current safety culture, including auditing personnel policies, procedures, emergency preparedness, safety committees, safety incentive programs, and enforcement. A risk assessment may address general safety, substance abuse and drug testing, workplace violence, and OSHA standards (such as hazard communication, blood-borne pathogens, personal protective equipment, and recordkeeping). Employers may also want to review recent injury and illness incidence rates and/or OSHA citations to identify areas of concern. Employers can even calculate their own days away, restricted, or transferred (DART) rating using the online calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.
Further, healthcare employers may want to consider training their physicians and supervisors regarding their unique health and safety risks, available resources such as employee assistance programs and paid time off, and how to report safety concerns, injuries, and illnesses. OSHA law prohibits employers from retaliating or discriminating against a worker for reporting a safety issue, injury, or illness. To further prevent potential OSHA violations, employers can promptly investigate and address any concerns that are reported or discovered.