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Workplace Safety for Nurses

The nursing profession offers a wealth of benefits, including job satisfaction, job stability and the unique opportunity to contribute to an evolving health system. As with any line of work, however, there are potential drawbacks. Nurses are confronted with a number of workplace safety issues that can impact their health, as well as that of their patients.

Understanding what these safety issues are and how they may affect your health, well-being and job performance can help you better prepare and avoid the pitfalls. The following are some of the most common safety issues that nurses face in the workplace.

Inadequate Staffing

Nursing is a fast-growing occupation, but demand still outpaces supply. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) attributes this to an aging nursing workforce, a greater need for healthcare and inadequate openings at nursing schools nationwide.

Fewer nurses on staff often results in lower standards of patient care. “More than 20 percent of polled Michigan nurses reported knowledge of a patient dying as result of hospital understaffing,” according to an article in MLive. Most of the 401 registered nurses surveyed said that having to take care of too many patients negatively impacts care.

Nursing understaffing is not an issue exclusive to Michigan. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported an increase in the prospects of a patient dying within 30 days of admission in hospitals with high patient-to-nurse ratios.

Poorly staffed facilities can also take a toll on the health and welfare of nurses. The American Nurses Association (ANA) reports that it can lead nurses to experience stress, higher injury rates and fatigue.

Mandatory Overtime

Due to nursing shortages, some facilities have found it necessary to require nurses to work overtime. According to ANA, staff nurses across the nation say there has been a radical increase in mandatory overtime.

According to Nursing Economics, working long hours can result in poor sleep quality and fatigue, which can lead to poor reaction times and decreased alertness and decision-making abilities. Excessive overtime can also result in workplace accidents, such as needlestick and musculoskeletal injuries.

Physical Injuries

Lifting patients and heavy equipment can take its toll on the back and musculoskeletal system. According to ANA, nursing ranks among the professions at highest risk for musculoskeletal problems, including strains and sprains; they say 52 percent of nurses complain of chronic back pain.

This has negative consequences not only for nurses but also for patients. According to ANA, 38 percent of nurses have experienced back pain so severe that they have had to take leave from work, and 12 percent have left nursing because of chronic pain.

Shift Work

Patients need around-the-clock care, which means nurses must be available to work nights. Whether a nurse chooses shift work or it is mandated, there are issues associated with working irregular hours. Shift work can negatively affect a nurse’s sleep pattern and overall well-being, which in turn can impact performance, according to Nursing Economics. Evidence shows that disrupted sleep patterns interrupt circadian rhythms and are associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, digestive issues and depression.

The Journal of Sleep Research explains that a worker who experiences even moderate levels of fatigue performs at the same or lower level than someone who is too intoxicated to drive.


Nurses and Personal Care Assistants experience the highest rates of violence among healthcare workers, according to Nursing Economics. Of this group, emergency nurses experience the most assaults; in one study, 3,465 emergency nurses said violence is a prevalent work issue.

Aside from suffering physical injury and disability from assaults, nurses who are victims of workplace violence are also prone to a myriad of psychological problems, including sleep disorders, flashbacks, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.

Employers often lose nurses who resign due to violent incidents and incur additional costs associated with increased turnover, litigation, absenteeism and decreased morale. This ultimately can impact patient care.

Violence does not just occur in emergency rooms. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), workplace violence against nurses is an epidemic, with three of four nurses having experienced verbal or physical abuse by patients and visitors.

Infectious Diseases

It is not just patients who are at risk of becoming sick at hospitals. Because of their exposure to sick and injured patients, nurses are at an increased risk of contracting infectious diseases

Some of the diseases that have been recorded, per Medscape, include HIV, influenza, SARS, mumps, measles and human herpes. Nurses are exposed to a greater number of pathogens than workers in other professions, including veterinarians, waste collectors and dentists.

A number of safety issues exist for nurses in the workplace — some of these include understaffing, workplace violence, shift work and exposure to infectious diseases. Being mindful of these issues and working to prevent them can reduce the risk of mishaps and increase job satisfaction.

Learn about the University of Texas of the Permian Basin online RN to BSN program.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Nursing Shortage

M Live: Michigan Nurses Poll Links Patient Deaths to Hospital Understaffing

The JAMA Network: Hospital Nurse Staffing and Patient Mortality, Nurse Burnout, and Job Dissatisfaction

American Nurses Association: Top Issues for Staff Nurses

Nursing Economics: Presence of Nurse Mandatory Overtime Regulations and Nurse and Patient Outcomes

American Nurses Association: Handle With Care Fact Sheet

Medscape: Shift Work in Nursing: Is it Really a Risk Factor for Nurses’ Health and Patients’ Safety?

NCBI: Quantifying the Performance Impairment Associated with Fatigue

NCBI: Violence Against Nurses and Its Impact on Stress and Productivity

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Nurses Face Epidemic Levels of Violence at Work

Medscape: The Risky Business of Nursing

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