Home > RNJ > 2005 > May/June > Current Issues: Strategies to Improve Patient and Healthcare Provider Safety in Patient Handling and Movement Tasks

Current Issues: Strategies to Improve Patient and Healthcare Provider Safety in Patient Handling and Movement Tasks

Over the past few decades, there has been growing concern over the increasing number and severity of musculoskeletal injuries associated with patient handling tasks, especially in nursing personnel. This concern has led to reports recommending patient handling technologies be used in place of traditional manual lifting (Panel on Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council; and Institute of Medicine, 2001; U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 2002). These recommendations have triggered debate between physical therapists and rehabilitation nurses. On the one hand, with the nursing shortage and high rates of injuries among nursing personnel, the recommendations are viewed as a necessary safety measure. On the other hand, overuse of mechanical lifting devices could affect patient functional status and independence. This paradox has triggered debate and has hindered efforts to promote safe patient handling and movement in rehabilitation settings.

In order to address these concerns, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) convened a national task force consisting of representatives from the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses (ARN), American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), and the VHA. The purpose of this task force was to develop a position paper balancing the needs of all three organizations into a workable solution. Our goal was to find a way to effectively incorporate the most recent evidence on safe patient handling and movement into rehabilitation settings.


The purpose of this white paper is to promote collaboration between rehabilitation nurses and physical therapists to address the mutual goals of improving:

  • afety of patients during handling and movement tasks.
  • Functional status and independence of patients to achieve optimal rehabilitation potential.
  • afety of care providers during patient handling and movement tasks.
  • tilization of evidence-based research on safe patient handling and movement.
  • ommunication between interdisciplinary team members regarding safe patient handling methods.


After careful consideration of current practice and research, the APTA, ARN and VHA Task Force on Safe Patient Handling and Movement make the following recommendations in order of priority:

  1.  Implement OSHA Ergonomics for the Preven- tion of Musculoskeletal Disorders: Guidelines for Nursing Homes.
       a.  Establish an interdisciplinary team respons- ible for reviewing and implementing the OSHA guidelines.
       b.  Utilize or adapt algorithms in the guidelines for making decisions about safe patient movement.
       c.  Establish organizational policies and proce-dures based on the guidelines

Discussion: In 2003, OSHA promulgated voluntary guidelines for nursing homes for the prevention of musculoskeletal injuries. Although this document was written to assist in reducing the number and severity of work-related musculoskeletal injuries in nursing homes, it has application to many clinical settings, including rehabilitation. The guideline recommendations were based on current scientific evidence and existing practices and programs, and were reviewed by various professional and trade associations, labor organizations, and other stakeholders. The guidelines address a process for protecting workers and recommendations for identification of problems and implementation of solutions for patient lifting and repositioning.

  2.  Build and support a culture of safety in rehab-ilitation settings that protects staff as well as patients.

Discussion: There is a difference in the culture of the two disciplines in regards to occupational safety. Professional-level educational programs for physical therapists emphasize self-protection and patient safety during all patient handling and movement tasks. This results in the development of a culture of safety that transcends into practice. In contrast, professional level educational programs in nursing emphasize patient safety but lack emphasis in self-protection. This results in a culture where self-protection is not valued. For the last 30 years, nurses have appeared on the OSHA top 10 list of professions with work-related injuries (OSHA, n/d). A reduction in occupational injuries associated with patient handling can only occur when the nursing profession and nurses themselves recognize this risk and take steps to promote their own safety. This will require a paradigm shift for the nursing profession and a change in the way nurses are taught in schools of nursing. Recognition that the culture of self-sacrifice contributes to the risk of injury in nursing is a necessary first step in the paradigm shift to accept self-preservation and safety as high priorities. With the shortage of nurses, healthcare organizations need every nurse to be injury-free.

  3.  Improve communication channels between nurses and physical therapists to facilitate safe patient handling and movement tasks.
       a.  Collaborate on patient handling policies.
       b.  Develop a process for initial plans of patient care with ongoing updates.
       c.  Develop routine interdepartmental meetings to discuss staffing and equipment needs.

Discussion: The development of a facilitywide policy that outlines patient handling and movement tasks should be the product of collaboration among nursing, physical therapy, and other rehabilitation professional staff and address issues such as bed mobility, transfers, ambulation and gait, wheelchair activities, and other activities of daily living. This policy should include provisions for discussing current patient level of cooperation, bed mobility assistance needs, transfer level, wheelchair level, ambulation and gait level, special equipment needs, and functional goals. Status should be updated at preset intervals to account for fluctuation in endurance and/or mentation. The policy should also outline the availability, storage location, function, and maintenance of all equipment. Finally, it should create a common language for all personnel to minimize error in decision-making, interpretation of patient care plans, and status evaluation. This policy may be further modified to meet special needs of individual patient care units.

The periodic review of staffing allocation and equipment needs are recommended to appropriately respond to an ever-changing patient population. While the appropriate selection of assistive and patient handling equipment can minimize the physical effort of personnel, the equipment still requires one or more staff for safe operation, and the allocation of staff should continually meet the demands of the patient population. Interdepartmental meetings give staff the opportunity to request input on use or function of equipment; problems with equipment use, storage, and maintenance; and may generate ideas for improved staff utilization.

  4.  Develop policies and procedures for the thera- peutic use of patient handling equipment.
       a.  Select equipment that first provides safety for staff and patients.
       b.  Select equipment with features that, as appropriate, allows for or promotes active use of the assistive equipment by the patient for some therapeutic benefit.

Discussion: Selection of patient handling equipment should assure the safety of providers and patients, yet not jeopardize the patient’s rehabilitation potential. Various patient handling equipment may be used as assistive devices during rehabilitation, thereby increasing the patient’s familiarity and independence with the device while decreasing the risk for developing occupational musculoskeletal injuries in staff. Institutional policy and procedures should include the following objectives to prevent injury and maintain optimum rehabilitation potential:

       a.  Train all staff in the proper and safe operation of all equipment.
       b.  Use valid and reliable algorithms and patient assessment tools (an example is included in the OSHA guidelines).
       c.  Encourage patient participation in the use of assistive equipment (e.g., some sit/stand lifts can be used as an ambulation aid).
       d.  Conduct an individualized functional assessment of each patient to assure techniques for assistance with movement are appropriate.
       e.  Provide consistency in the use of equipment by both physical therapy and nursing staff.

  5.  Develop competency-based assessments that demonstrate proficiency for use of all patient handling equipment used on the respective patient care unit, including return demonstration.

Discussion: All new physical therapy and nursing staff should be introduced to patient handling equipment used by the facility during orientation. Once the employee has been assigned to a specific patient care unit, additional training should be provided to include the use, function, maintenance and proper storage of the equipment. Adequate hands-on practice with the equipment must be provided and include the operation from provider and receiver roles, and coaching on how to train patients and family members on the appropriate use of the equipment. Employees should be required to demonstrate competency through active methods such as role playing and teaching other staff members (also known as return demonstration).

A system for ongoing assessment of competency with these devices should be incorporated into existing channels for behavioral observation and professional development. In this way, there is a simple expansion of a familiar and accepted process rather than a new method that requires extensive introduction, orientation, and teaching. For example, proper use of equipment could be added to a checklist used by safety or ergonomics teams that perform random or periodic walkthroughs, an existing peer-review process, or an existing system for positive reinforcement whenever good practices are observed. More importantly, the continual review process helps to integrate appropriate use of equipment into the safe patient handling culture.

   6.   Encourage research that supports the im-provement of patient and staff safety while maximizing patient rehabilitation potential.
         a.  Investigate the cost-effectiveness of ergonomics interventions.
         b.  Investigate the impact of injury-risk reduction to physical therapists.
         c.  Determine the efficacy of patient handling equipment when integrated into therapeutic activities.

Discussion: To enhance administrative support and resource allocation for purchasing appropriate patient handling equipment, cost-effectiveness studies are needed to build a solid business case for safe patient handling interventions. Consideration of the direct and indirect costs associated with workplace injuries must be addressed and may include assessment of the costs of medical care, absenteeism, replacement, rehiring, training, work restrictions, insurance and worker’s compensation premiums, productivity, quality of care, and the impact on morale.

While the integration of safe patient handling practices that emphasize the use of assistive equipment has been encouraged in nursing personnel, little is documented about the impact of injury reduction strategies when these devices are integrated into physical therapy practice. Further research is needed to investigate the effect of patient handling and movement on physical therapy staff injury rates, the use of equipment as a means to assist in reaching rehabilitation goals while preventing injury, and the attitudinal changes required to incorporate safe patient handling techniques using equipment into physical therapy practice.


Bernard, B. P. (1997). Musculoskeletal disorders and workplace factors. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bohannon, R. W. (1999). Horizontal transfers between adjacent surfaces: Forces required using different methods. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 80, 851–853.

Bork, B. E., Cook, T. M., Rosecrance, J. C., Engelhardt, K. A., Thomason, M. E., & Wauford, I. J. (1996). Work-related musculoskeletal disorders among physical therapists. Physical Therapy, 76, 827–835.

Buss, I. C., Halfens, R. J. G., & Abu-Saad, H. H. (2002). The most effective time interval for repositioning subjects at risk of pressure sore development: A literature review. Rehabilitation Nursing, 27(2), 59–66.

Caboor, D. E., Verlinden, M. O., Zinzen, E., Van Roy, P., Van Riel, M. P., & Clarys, J. P. (2000). Implications of an adjustable bed height during standard nursing tasks on spinal motion, perceived exertion, and muscular activity. Ergonomics, 43, 1771–1780.

Cohen-Mansfield, J., Culpepper II, W. J., & Carter, P. (1996). Nursing staff back injuries: Prevalence and costs in long-term care facilities. AAOHN Journal, 44(1), 9–17.

Collins, J. W., & Owen, B. D. (1996). NIOSH research initiatives to prevent back injuries to nursing assistants, aids, and orderlies in nursing homes. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 29, 421–424.

Cromie, J. E., Robertson, V. J., & Best, M. O. (2000) Work-related musculoskeletal disorders in physical therapists: Prevalence, severity, risks and responses. Physical Therapy, 80, 336–351

Daynard, D., Yassi, A., Cooper, J. E., Tate, R., Norman, R., & Wells, R. (2001). Biomechanical analysis of peak and cumulative spinal loads during simulated patient-handling activities: A substudy of a randomized controlled trial to prevent lift and transfer injury of healthcare workers. Applied Ergonomics, 32, 199–214.

Dybel, G. J. (2000). Ergonomic evaluation of work as a home healthcare aide. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Estryn-Behar, M., Kaminski, M., Peigne, E., Maillard, M. F., Pelletier, A., Berthier, C. et al. (1990). Strenuous working conditions and musculo-skeletal disorders among female hospital workers. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 62(1), 47–57.

Granata, K. P., & Marras, W. S. (1999). Relation between spinal load factors and the high-risk probability of occupational low-back disorder. Ergonomics, 42, 1187–1199.

Hignett, S. (1996). Work-related back pain in nurses. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23, 1238–1246.

Hignett, S. (1998). Ergonomic evaluation of electric mobile hoists. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 509–516.

Hignett, S, Crumpton, E., Ruszala, S., Alexander, P., Fray, M., & Fletcher, B. (2003). Evidence-based patient handling: Tasks, equipment and interventions. New York: Routledge.

Lagerstrom, M., Hansson, T., & Hagberg, M. (1998). Work-related low-back problems in nursing. Scandinavian Journal Work Environment Health, 24, 449–464.

Marras, W. S., Davis, K. G., Kirking, B. C., & Bertsche, P. K. (1999). A comprehensive analysis of low-back disorder risk and spinal loading during the transferring and repositioning of patients using different techniques. Ergonomics, 42, 904–926.

Myers, D., Silverstein, B., & Nelson, N. A. (2002). Predictors of shoulder and back injuries in nursing home workers: A prospective study. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 41, 466–476.

Panel on Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council; and Institute of Medicine. (2001). Musculoskeletal disorders and the workplace: Low Back and Upper Extremities. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Ronald, L. A., Yassi, A., Spiegel, J., Tate, R. B., Tait, D., & Mozel, M. R. (2002). Effectiveness of installing overhead ceiling lifts: Reducing musculoskeletal injuries in an extended- care hospital unit. AAOHN Journal, 50(3), 120–127.

Silverstein, B., Viikari-Juntura, E., & Kalat, J. (2002). Use of a prevention index to identify industries at high risk for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, back, and upper extremity in Washington state, 1990–1998. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 41, 149–169.

Ulin, S. S., Chaffin, D. B., Patellos, C. L., Blitz, S. G., Emerick, C. A., Lundy, F., & Misher, L. (1997). A biomechanical analysis of methods used for transferring totally dependent patients. SCI Nursing, 14(1), 19–26.

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Table SO1. Highest incident rates of total nonfatal occupational injury and illness cases, private industry, 2001. Retrieved October 31, 2003, from http://www.Bls.Gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/ostb1109.pdf.

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2002). Ergonomic guidelines for nursing nomes. Retrieved February 24, 2004, at http://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/guidelines/nursinghome/final_nh_guidelines.htm.

Winkelmolen, G. H. M., Landeweerd, J. A., & Drost, M. R. (1994). An evaluation of patient lifting techniques. Ergonomics, 37, 921–932.

Yassi, A., Cooper, J. E., Tate, R. B., Gerlach, S., Muir, M., Trottier, J. et al. (2001). A randomized control trial to prevent patient lift and transfer injuries of healthcare workers. Spine, 26, 1739–1746.

Yassi, A., Khokhar, J., Tate, R., Cooper, J., Snow, C., & Vallentyne, S. (1995). The epidemiology of back injuries at a large Canadian tertiary care hospital: Implications for prevention. Occupational Medicine, 45, 215–220.

Web Sites

Patient Safety Center patientsafetycenter.com
Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare (Vancouver, British Columbia) www.ohsah.bc.ca

Task Force Participants

Audrey Nelson, PhD RN FAAN
Director, Patient Safety Center
Director, HSR&D REAP Patient Safety
James A. Haley VA Hospital
Tampa, FL

Catherine A. Tracey, MS RN
Administrator of Nursing
Havenwood-Heritage Heights
Concord, NH

Marian L. Baxter, MS MA RN CRRN
Clinical Nurse Specialist
McGuire VA Medical Center
Richmond, VA

Paul Nathenson, MPA BSN RN CRRN
Vice President of Patient Care
Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital
Lincoln, NE

Mary Rosario, BSN RN ANCC
Rehabilitation Staff Nurse
Tampa General Hospital
Tampa, FL

Kathleen Rockefeller, PT ScD MPH MS
Clinical Assistant Professor
Department of Physical Therapy
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, IL

Miriam Joffe, MS PT CPE
Senior Consulting Ergonomist
Auburn Engineers, Inc.
Austin, TX

Kenneth J. Harwood, PhD PT CIE
Director, Practice Department
American Physical Therapy Association
Alexandria, VA

Kevan Whipple, DPT PT STS CEAS
Senior Staff Physical Therapist
VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
Salt Lake City, UT

Hoang (Ginger) Le, PT MPH
Physical Therapist
Ginger Fitness and Rehabilitation, Inc.
Tampa, FL