100 years on - is the workplace safer for nursing staff?

 Kim Sunley 23 Feb 2016

Our centenary is a chance to reflect on changes to health and safety conditions, though it’s not always been for the better.

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.

Healthy workplace, healthy you

Our Healthy workplace, healthy you campaign has resources to help you with work-life balance including advice for carers and resources for employers on the benefits of flexible working arrangements.

Kim Sunley

Kim Sunley

Senior Employment Relations Adviser


Kim Sunley is a Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the Royal College of Nursing. Kim works to improve the health and safety and working environment for nursing staff across the United Kingdom.

Page last updated - 18/09/2018