By Dr Eugene Brink
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the plight and hazards of the nursing profession.
Since March stories about the lack of safety for nursing staff dealing with Covid-19 patients have been ceaselessly reported on by the media. Unions in the public health sector have organised strikes on account of the dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safety measures. Whether one agrees with the latter actions or not, it points to a real (even mortal) fear.
Although the nursing profession has always faced a plethora of workplace perils, Covid-19 has had the upshot of better highlighting some of these. “Whether in a hospital setting or any medical facility in which patient care is the primary focus, nurses face exposure to workplace hazards regularly. From infectious diseases to injuries nurses put themselves at risk simply by providing care for those they serve,” writes nursing expert Lindy Barker.
Hence, what are these risks that all current and prospective nurses and their employers should take note of lest more nurses leave a high-demand career?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (COD), nursing staff could suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. This could be brought on by heavy manual lifting when transferring or repositioning patients, working in awkward positions, straining to lift or move obese patients and a significant amount of time standing and walking.
The CDC adds that there are other physical dangers commonly associated with certain patient populations, such as those in psychiatric wards, emergency rooms, waiting rooms and geriatric units. Nurses more often fall prey to workplace violence than other healthcare workers. These effects include minor and serious physical injuries, temporary and permanent physical disability, psychological trauma and even death.
Moreover, nurses are frequently exposed to radiation in a variety of ways and this could have adverse consequences. Exposure to ionizing radiation is associated with an increased risk of miscarriages, stillbirths, and other harmful reproductive outcomes. They have also been linked to bone and skin cancers as well as leukaemia.
Most pertinent at the current juncture is the risk of infectious diseases. Apart from Covid-19, nurses are exposed to diseases such as Hepatitis B, MRSA, tuberculosis, and HIV.
Due to the nature of their work, nurses face many stressful situations. They also work long hours and shifts, and this could adversely affect their personal lives.
Caring for terminally-ill patients (in oncology centres) or mentally-ill patients (in psychiatric wards), or facing a steady stream of emergencies (such as victims of horrific car crashes and violent crimes), will eventually take its emotional and physical toll. Among other impacts, this could manifest by way of headaches, fatigue and depression. South African nurses, coping with a heavy workload and more traumatic scenes, are especially susceptible to stress and its effects.
Nursing is one of the most gratifying, vital and noble professions on earth. And nurses are in short supply – especially in South Africa. Nurses and their employers should thus ensure that their physical and mental wellbeing is in rude health and managed throughout their careers. We depend on them.
Lindy Barker, 2020, “Challenges of nursing: Workplace hazards”, https://www.bosmedicalstaffing.com/2018/08/22/challenges-of-nursing-workplace-hazards/.
NCBI, 1995, “Nursing Health, & Environment: Strengthening the Relationship to Improve the Public’s Health”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232400/.
The Sentinel Watch, 26 September 2017, “Nurses face workplace hazards”, https://www.americansentinel.edu/blog/2017/09/26/nurses-face-workplace-hazards/.