Nurse sitting in a hallway

6 Most Common Nursing Injuries

Learn How to Treat & Avoid the Most Common Injuries for Nursing Professionals

Nurse sitting in a hallway

Registered nurses (RNs) play a vital role in healthcare. Not only do they provide patients with care and health services, they may also elevate public health by partnering with health clinics, and delivering educational services, health screenings, and a countless other forms of community health services.

About three million RNs work in industries across the United States. Many of them face workplace hazards while performing routine tasks. Nurses tirelessly spend many of their working hours walking, bending, stretching, and standing, which exposes them to several physical risks, including fatigue, slips, trips, or falls. They are also vulnerable to back injuries since they are frequently tasked with lifting and moving their patients on a regular basis.

Furthermore, nurses must repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to care for us. On any given day, they can be exposed to a host of potentially harmful or hazardous substances, including drugs, chemicals, disease, radiation, or accidental needlesticks. Naturally, much of an RN’s training prepares them to avoid many of these risks, but they are not invulnerable, and accidents can always happen. Although nurses are highly skilled professionals that understand the importance of maintaining workplace safety, the constant vigilance that’s required can be emotionally taxing on anyone who carries these responsibilities.

This article identifies the most common injuries and illnesses for nurses, discusses various treatments and outcomes, and examines some of the ways these injuries may be prevented or mitigated by both nurses and their employers.

Nursing Injury Statistics

Demographics of Injured Nurses in the U.S.

When it comes to nursing injuries, overexertion and bodily reactions are the most common diagnosis. These injuries typically affect the back and ease of movement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overexertion accounted for about 46 percent of all nursing injury cases in 2016. Some potential causes include excessive physical effort, bending, twisting, lifting, and repetitive motions.

The second most common injury for nurses is falls, slips, and trips. The BLS has stated that this category accounted for 25 percent of all RN injuries and illnesses throughout 2016. In many instances, common sources which directly produced an injury were nurses themselves or their patients.

BLS pie chart for RN injuries

Nursing Injuries by Gender

Most nursing injuries in the country occur to female nurses. Although women experience higher rates of injury, this may also be due to the greater number of women that fill these roles.

Gender Number of Injuries Percent of All Injuries
Female 18,048 91%
Male 1,742 9%

Nursing Injuries by Age Group

75% of nursing injuries affected nurses between the ages of 35 and 74.

Age Group % of Injuries/Illnesses Average Days Away from Work
20 – 24 2% 3
25 – 34 18% 6
35 – 44 23% 6
45 – 54 27% 7
55 – 64 25% 8
65 and over 3% 17

Most Common Injuries Among Nurses

The most common nursing injuries largely fall into the following categories.

  1. Overexertion & Bodily Reaction
  2. Falls, Slips, and Trips
  3. Violence and Other Injuries by Persons or Animals
  4. Contact with Objects or Equipment
  5. Transportation Incidents
  6. Exposure to Harmful Substances or Environments

The Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down these most common injuries by comparing the impacts these injuries have on nurses versus other occupations.

Based on the chart below, two injuries that appear to disproportionately affect nurses more than all other occupations are:

  • Overexertion and bodily reaction (RNs, 46% vs. other occupations, 34%)
  • Violence and other injuries by people or animals (RNs, 12% vs. other occupations, 4%)

BLS graph for RN injuries

Even within the field of nursing, there’s a discernable difference in the rate of injury types based on your environment or workplace setting.

For example, nurses who work in ambulatory healthcare services are more prone to injuries involving transportation incidents or falls, slips, and trips, while hospital nurses may be at higher risk of violent events, overexertion, or contact with hazardous objects and equipment.

BLS figure for RN injuries

1. Overexertion & Bodily Injuries

Healthcare professional placing a splint

Overexertion and other bodily reactions are some of the most common injuries among nurses. In fact, according to the BLS, almost half of all nonfatal nursing injuries in 2016 were due to overexertion. These events may result in disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs.

Overexertion injuries are primarily rooted in excessive physical effort; repetitive motions; and twisting, bending, and lifting. For instance, healthcare workers often experience sprains, strains, or back injuries after lifting patients. Nurses will typically need to take time off work to recover from these types of injuries.

Nurses who are 45 to 54 years of age suffer these types of injuries more than all other age groups. This group is closely followed by nurses who are 55 to 64 years of age.

How Nurses Can Avoid Overexertion Injuries

Some researchers have stated that ergonomics could be the answer. Ergonomics revolves around the development of work methods that promote job performance within an individual’s physical capabilities. Nurses could use this approach for patient-handling techniques, which would promote safety procedures and proper equipment.

There is an equation to determine the weight a person can lift without risking their safety. While helpful to calculate for an object, it’s more complicated to determine this weight for a patient. Lifting or moving a person requires a different set of lifting methods and techniques. The human is less rigid than most object, and different parts of the body can weigh different and exhibit other unique characteristics. For this reason, nurses must combine ergonomics and proper lifting techniques to protect themselves from injury.

Some safety experts have concluded there is only one way to prevent overexertion injuries: The need to manually lift patients must be eliminated. As technology improves and workplace standard to continue to evolve, this could very well be the future solution to this problem. Until then, nurses will have to rely on their training and experience to avoid these types of injuries.

2. Falls, Slips, and Trips

Blonde woman rubbing her back

Falls, slips, and trips are the second leading type of injury among nurses. A recent study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that most of these injuries were attributed to hazards that could be prevented. These include various environmental hazards like wet floors and other walking obstacles, like tripping over cords.

Nurses 50 years and older encounter a higher rate of workplace slips, trips, and falls. In addition, the greatest percentage of these types of injuries—about 36 percent—can be attributed to liquid contamination, such as water, ice, bodily fluids, grease, wax, or gel.

How Nurses Can Avoid Falling or Slipping in the Workplace

As with overexertion injuries, many believe that slips, trips, and falls are preventable. Evidence suggests the following solutions can decrease the risk of falling or slipping while at work:

  • Greater use of mechanical lifts
  • Facility-wide programs targeting common slip hazards
  • Installing textured floors
  • Requiring slip-resistant shoes
  • Improvements in housekeeping practices (i.e. using wet floor signs, fast cleanup of spills, and aggressively removing grease, ice, or snow)

In addition, preventive programs could be implemented in every workspace. These educational efforts should include instruction on systematically recording the initial event that led to injury. Doing so would ensure that the details of each event are properly documented. Nurses should also receive training to easily recognize common slip, trip, and fall hazards, which would enable them to detect, avoid, and resolve these types of hazards when they see them.

3. Violent Injuries by People

Nurse unraveling gauze

Although violent events only accounted for  about 12 percent of injuries to nurses, the labor bureau reports that the incidence rate amongst nurses was about three times greater than the rate of violent events for all other careers.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workplace violence in healthcare occupations can be sorted into one of four categories:

  1. Violence by criminal perpetrators who have no relationship to the facility or its employees
  2. Patient who become violent while receiving care
  3. Violence between employees
  4. Violence in personal relationships

Violence in the healthcare space is an even greater issue when you consider that several violent incidents go underreported each year. There are several reasons why nurses might choose not to report violent episodes, especially if they work for organizations that follow a profit-driven corporate model. Some companies focus so much on patient satisfaction they are reluctant to hold their patients accountable for their actions. Some nurses avoid reporting violent incidents because it can be time-consuming, and they may not believe that it can lead to any substantive changes in their employer’s policies or procedures.

The tide is changing, however, as new laws get introduced to protect healthcare workers, and as more nurses become more vocal about these workplace issues. In fact, some nurses have even posted about their experiences on social media to shed light on this issue.

How Nurses Can Avoid Violent Injuries

To address the issues surrounding workplace violence in the healthcare industry, the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets guidelines for healthcare professionals. They recommend that organizations create a workplace violence prevention program. They also suggest that reports are documented and investigated as soon as possible, and that all workers receive training on workplace violence.

The fight for nursing safety has also reached the state-government level. Now, more than 30 states have greater penalties for assaults against nurses and other healthcare practitioners. Some states also post warnings in their hospitals regarding violent behaviors, and others have passed resolutions urging healthcare leaders to establish standards of conduct for both managers and employees.

Nurses should never treat or rationalize violence as an element of their job. These events must always be reported and well documented. If nurses continue to speak up and new laws or policies are passed to protect them, it is our hope that violence against healthcare workers will diminish over time.

4. Accidental Needlesticks and Equipment Injuries

Masked healthcare worker holding a sample

Another work-hazard for nursing professionals is contact with objects or equipment. This can range from colliding with large machines or running into hanging equipment. It can also include exposure to hazards like used needlesticks. While the percentage of nurses who miss days of work due to needlesticks is low, it’s still an important topic to discuss because of the potential consequences.

For healthcare workers, there is a risk of exposure to serious—and sometimes life-threatening—blood-borne infections. It’s estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 needlestick injuries occur annually in the United States. About half of these cases also go unreported. In addition, over 1,000 health care workers contract a serious infection every year, which may include HIV or the Hepatitis B (or C) virus. At an average hospital, studies have shown that workers experience about 30 needlestick injuries per 100 beds on an annual basis.

How Nurses Can Avoid Needlestick and Other Equipment Injuries

In 2000, the Federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was enacted. It affords healthcare professionals greater protection from this unnecessary hazard. Not only does the act require that safer needles are made available, it also forces employers to solicit feedback from frontline workers when making needle-purchasing decisions.

To support the health and safety of their nurses, some hospitals utilize safer medical equipment that are referred to as “passive” devices. Passive devices afford greater protection to the healthcare workers who use them because they incorporate safety features that are automatically triggered after each use. They are called passive devices because healthcare workers don’t have to take any additional steps to avoid risks to their health and safety.

Pro Tip: When interviewing for nursing jobs, inquire about the type of device used for the organization’s needles. Also, remember to ask about their safety policies, plans, and requirements. Look for examples of passive devices—a spring-loaded retractable syringe or self-blunting blood collection device—and try to avoid facilities that only use active-safety mechanisms, such as a sheathing needles that requires the worker to manually engage the safety sheath.

5. Transportation Injuries

African-American nurse assisting a patient

It’s very rare for inpatients to walk to or from an exam room while admitted at a healthcare facility. They are usually transported by a healthcare professional, either in a wheelchair or stretcher. Although patient transport is one of the most common nursing duties inside of a hospital or clinic, it can leave both patients and healthcare workers vulnerable to injury.

Below are just some of the risks associated with patient transport.

  • Falls: Falls are one of the leading causes of hospital injury and may occur while nurses transfer patients between beds, stretchers, or wheelchairs. Patients can fall during transport, and nurses can slip or strain their backs if they lift their patients incorrectly.
  • Pressure Sores: Transport can expose patients to skin injuries. For instance, moving a patient from their bed to a stretcher may cause sores or lacerations to the skin. If a wheelchair isn’t properly padded, or a patient sits for too long and cannot relieve the pressure, they could suffer from pressure sores.
  • Other Injury Types: Other hazards include transporting patients without the proper application of various safety features, like loose seatbelts on a wheelchair.

How to Avoid Injuries While Transporting Patients

Both hospitals and nursing providers can minimize the risk of transport injury by considering three factors:

  1. Patient assessment
  2. The use of appropriate equipment
  3. Safe transport techniques and procedures

The good news is many medical facilities are aware of the risks associated with patient transport and require their staff to complete training on safe patient handling.

Training typically includes topics like body mechanics, transfer techniques, patient communication, proper use of equipment, and how to identify unsafe or faulty equipment.

Even simple procedures, such as the correct positioning of equipment, or the use of the wheelchair brakes can prevent a normal patient-transfer from becoming a disaster. Moreover, most healthcare employees will receive continual safety training on an annual basis.

6. Exposure to Harmful Substances or Environments

Two nurses in personal protective equipment

Exposure to harmful substances or environments is another potential risk for nursing staff. Some of these hazards include chemicals, volatile organic compounds, sterilants, medications, pesticides, and latex. Information about these hazardous substances could prove extremely useful when it comes to devising strategies for minimizing nursing injuries and illnesses. Extra measures to protect nurses from such hazards would also benefit the entire healthcare system.

How Nurses Can Avoid Exposure to Harmful Substances

To better understand these risks, the following is a list of some of the most common harmful substances and how nurses can mitigate the dangers associated with them.

  • Chemical Occupational Exposures: According to NCBI, there are thousands of chemicals and other toxic substances that nurses can be exposed to in the workplace. They can come in the form of aerosols, gases, and skin contaminants. Primary exposure tend to be pulmonary (breathing) and dermal (skin). In the workplace, nurses should identify any hazardous substances currently in use and work with their managers to seek safer alternatives.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC): These compounds are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, meaning that the chemicals can be easily inhaled. Some examples are formaldehyde and artificial fragrances, two compounds that are universally present in hospitals. Strong odors, fumes, and perfumes can also trigger serious asthma attacks. Plus, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that’s frequently used in pathology and lab settings. It’s also found in bedding, drapes, carpets, acoustic ceiling tiles, and some furniture. Employers can purchase low or no-VOC products that are readily available. In addition, adequate indoor air circulation can significantly decrease the “dose” of VOCs in the air.
  • Sterilants: Nurses may be exposed to sterilants like ethylene oxide (EtO) and glutaraldehyde while cleaning equipment or other work surfaces. Although these chemicals are powerful and effective, they have also been associated with significant health risks. Glutaraldehyde can be linked to asthma, skin irritation, dermatitis, eye irritation, and conjunctivitis. As stated by NCBI: In a review of health effects from glutaraldehyde exposure, nearly all case reports of occupational asthma were reported by endoscopy nurses. In fact, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences has compiled scientific evidence on the cancer-causing properties of various chemicals, such as EtO, formaldehyde, and more. They also list EtO as a known human carcinogen.
  • Medications: Antineoplastics and anesthesia are the medications most commonly identified as hazardous to healthcare workers. In fact, anesthesia is particularly problematic, as gases escape into the air and may be inhaled by workers. One study found that intravenous induction posed a much lower risk to nurses and other healthcare workers. When it comes to antineoplastic agents, guidelines are available for proper handling by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It’s important to remember that nurses may be at particular risk, since they often distribute medication and handle contaminated linens (which can also expose them to human waste). They also handle drug containers, clean drug preparation areas, and may be involved with special procedures.
  • Pesticides: Pesticide use is another concern. Due to the unique vulnerabilities of children and pregnant women to pesticide exposure, there must be strict control of pesticide use in healthcare settings. A report called Healthy Hospitals: Controlling Pests Without Harmful Pesticides provides guidance on how to reduce pesticides and implement safer pest-management techniques. This comprehensive approach utilizes nontoxic and less-toxic products and processes to better control pests. In addition, an organization called Beyond Pesticides has partnered with Health Care Without Harm to help resolve pesticide issues in the U.S. They are currently planning several hospital-based pilot programs and work with hospital environmental services to integrate a safer pest management approach.
  • Latex exposure: This one may come as a surprise, but latex allergies can also pose a serious risk for healthcare workers. Symptoms may start with skin irritation and become more extreme, such as asthma or anaphylaxis. A latex allergy can lead to the progressive impairment of nurses from continued exposure. One great concern is latex balloons bursting, or the aerosolizing of latex particles attached to powder in latex gloves. These events could potentially cause occupational asthma. The American Nurses Association has suggested actions to protect patients and nurses from latex allergy in every healthcare facility. Some solutions include the use of low-allergen, powder-free gloves, and the removal of latex-containing products from the workplace.

The Importance of Safety Education in Nursing School

Nursing programs should emphasize the importance of a nurse’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Some curriculums specifically focus on raising awareness of potential injuries as well as preventing them in the first place. In addition, they may provide education on several mental health related topics.

Healthcare workers face a number of health challenges, but through awareness and training, they can learn to spot the risks, avoid the dangers, and seek the treatment they need to stay healthy and succeed in their lifesaving role.

About Unitek College

Nurse in a traditional uniform

If you’re looking to further your education, we offer several nursing programs at Unitek College, including our BSN program and Vocational Nursing school.

As a nurse, you will have the opportunity to heal hearts, minds, and bodies. Remember Maya Angelou’s words: they will never forget how you made them feel. Nursing is a noble career that often promises longevity and fulfillment. You can learn more about Unitek’s nursing programs by contacting one of our campuses.

Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!