In her 1898 Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale recognised one of the longest-standing safety risks for nursing staff – back injury. She wrote:
“The nurse must be able to get easily to both sides of the bed, and to reach easily every part of the patient without stretching.”
Fast forward 100 years and the European Directive on Manual Handling confined many such injuries to history. But the time in between – before hoists and slide sheets – was a painful one.
A Health and Safety Executive report in the 1970s found that nurses were involved in more accidents than any other hospital worker, with lifting and handling cited as the main causes.
A generation of nurses from that period will look back in horror, and with hindsight, at the practice of the ‘Australian’ or drag lifts, which left colleagues with debilitating injuries.
Despite the progress that has been made, musculoskeletal disorders remain one of the main causes of sickness absence and ill health retirement for nurses. And there are new challenges to face, like the rise in home care, which can mean working in a more confined space, and mobile working, in which nursing staff are writing up notes on their laptop, while sat in the car.
But what of the other main cause of sickness absence – stress? In 1926 Nursing Times reported from the Shirley Warren Infirmary in Southampton. Correspondent Dr E. L. White discovered working conditions familiar to present day readers: overstretched nurses working long hours on packed wards.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that employers took steps to protect their staff. St Thomas’ Hospital in London was the first organisation to recruit a nurse counsellor ‘to provide additional care for the helpers.’ Similar roles soon followed across the UK.
In 2016 staff counselling services and employee assistance programmes are well established in the NHS, although six-week waiting lists are commonplace.
Nursing staff may no longer be dying from preventable infectious diseases such as TB, but they are still feeling the psychological effect of excessive hours with very few breaks.
RCN in the workplace
Throughout the past 100 years, the RCN has always worked to protect our members in the workplace, from self-defence classes in the 1980s, to more recent campaigns on lone working and sharps safety.
Our latest campaign – Healthy Workplace, Healthy You – is calling on employers to take steps to improve the health and wellbeing of their staff using our simple Healthy Workplace Toolkit in partnership with RCN workplace representatives.