RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Obama administration says it will crack down on hospitals to prevent an epidemic of worker injuries. The plan is expected to be announced tomorrow. Nursing employees suffer more debilitating back and arm injuries than any other occupation. They're caused mainly by moving and lifting patients. Earlier this year, an NPR investigation found that many of those injured workers have had to quit their jobs. Yet, most hospitals have done little, even though studies show those injuries can be prevented. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the agency that's going to do something about this injury epidemic. You typically hear about OSHA when it's going after factories where workers arms got cut off or construction sites where the scaffolds collapsed. But now the head of OSHA, David Michaels, says their inspectors can go into hospitals and ask, for the first time, exactly what are you doing to make sure that nursing employees don't get disabled doing their everyday jobs, lifting patients?
DAVID MICHAELS: Hearing about the injuries facing nurses that were reported in the NPR stories had an impact on us. We've seen from the statistics how bad the problems are, but we haven't been into that many hospitals. The stories helped motivate us to say, what can we do? It's time for us to start doing some enforcement to make sure fewer workers are hurt.
ZWERDLING: Nursing employees across the country told us that their nursing schools and their hospitals teach them to move patients pretty much the same way that nurses have done for hundreds of years - bend your knees, and keep your back straight. It's called proper body mechanics, but studies show that's actually how nurses get hurt. The only way they can move patients safely is if they use special equipment, kind of like factories use hoists to move heavy parts. So OSHA's inspectors will interview nursing staff and managers. They'll get internal hospital documents. They'll find out what kinds of special machines does your hospital use to move patients, and how well do you train the employees to use them?
MICHAELS: Sadly, there will be some hospitals where we find significant ergonomic hazards, and they're at risk for serious penalties. We're hoping most hospitals abate those hazards before we get there. But we'll go in, we'll issue penalties, and that will tell the industry to change things.
ZWERDLING: Those penalties could go as high as $70,000 per hospital if OSHA could prove the hospital deliberately ignored the workers' injuries. But other health specialists, like Michael Silverstein, are not so optimistic that OSHA will get the industry to change much.
MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN: OSHA deserves credit for doing this.
ZWERDLING: But he says there are limits to what OSHA can do. Silverstein used to run the occupational health program for the State of Washington. He and others told us if the Obama administration really wants to protect nurses, they should work on getting Congress to pass a law that would cover hospitals across the nation because OSHA has major constraints on what it can do. For instance, OSHA staff is so small that they'll likely inspect dozens of hospitals every year, not hundreds. So Silverstein says even if OSHA gets those hospitals to protect in their nursing staff, there's no guarantee that OSHA's leaders can get the rest of the industry to follow.
SILVERSTEIN: They will be sending an important message to these workplaces. They will be able to establish some improvements in some specific workplaces, but they will be taking only baby steps in that direction.
ZWERDLING: Officials at OSHA say their inspectors can start investigating hospitals tomorrow to see how many of their nursing staff are getting disabled lifting patients. Daniels Zwerdling, NPR News.