Health Risks In Health Care

african american woman with stressed expression( — Occupational hazards occur in most every area of employment, and nurses, doctors and other health workers are no exception. Those on the front lines of health care face a multitude of risks every day. The following article details just some of the common risks faced by those who deliver America’s medical care.

Latex Allergy

Latex has been ubiquitous in the health care industry for decades. This pliable and useful material is used to manufacture tubing, oxygen masks, gloves, and a wide variety of products used in the delivery of medical and nursing care. Latex proteins leach into the skin of health care workers, and can also enter the respiratory tract in the form of airborne latex powder. Symptoms of latex allergy, which can develop over a period of time, include generalized skin reaction, respiratory symptoms, and even anaphylactic shock. Avoidance of latex and the use of alternatives to latex are highly recommended. While many health care facilities have adopted this practice, some products may be more difficult to procure in non-latex form. Unfortunately, allergic reactions to vinyl, a material often used in lieu of latex, are also becoming more commonplace.

Environmental Hazards

Nurses and other health care workers are potentially exposed to a number of environmental hazards due to the nature of medical waste. Examples of these hazards include mercury and dioxin (a known carcinogen found in most plastics). Exposure to these materials (and others) can lead to birth defects, infertility, and a number of other health conditions and illnesses.


Many heavy-duty cleaners and disinfectants are used to keep hospitals clean and reduce the spread of infection, and health care workers are exposed to cleaners and chemicals in a variety of forms. Hand disinfectants, air fresheners, chemical cleaners, floor waxes, chemotherapy drugs, isopropyl alcohol, sanitary wipes and other materials handled by health workers every day have been known to cause symptoms in those who use them or are exposed to them, including skin reactions, respiratory symptoms, hypersensitivity, and the development of chronic conditions such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and Environmental Illness (EI).

Musculoskeletal Complaints and Injuries

Nurses and orderlies in hospital settings often must transfer, roll and otherwise assist patients in normal daily activities and movement. While nurses and other hospital workers are encouraged to request assistance from a colleague when moving a large patient, staffing issues and time management often prevent this from occurring. Thus, neck and back injuries do frequently occur, and a great deal of money, time and care is spent correcting injuries that are incurred on the job. Working as a nurse on a medical-surgical floor is demanding work, and with a significant increase in obesity in our country, nurses are much more likely to be caring for morbidly obese patients in need of assistance with transfers and mobility.

Infection and Disease

Hospitals, doctors’ offices, clinics and other health care facilities are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. Nurses, housekeeping staff, doctors, physical therapists and other health workers are constantly exposed to patients who are coughing, bleeding, sneezing, vomiting, and otherwise showing signs of acute illness. Some patients unknowingly carry infectious agents, and while “universal precautions” are now standard everywhere, health care workers still get sick, are accidentally stuck with used needles, or are spontaneously exposed to body fluids or secretions that pose a risk of infection. From antibiotic-resistant bacteria to HIV, Hepatitis C, influenza and the common cold, health care workers face enormous odds when trying to remain healthy amidst constant exposure to various pathogens in the work environment.


Delivering health care can be rewarding, but the stressors are countless. The consistent exposure to illness, injury, suffering and death can take a toll on even the most emotionally healthy individual, and stress and burnout are commonplace among nurses, doctors and other health care workers alike.

In these difficult economic times, many hospital nurses find themselves caring simultaneously for more patients than ever before, and home care nurses face patients coming home from the hospital with even greater levels of acute illness. Meanwhile, doctors face exorbitant malpractice insurance premiums and escalating costs of maintaining a medical practice in a competitive market with decreasing reimbursement from insurance companies. Thus, the fiscal stress experienced by doctors and other providers has also astronomically increased as the acuity of patients also rises.

Violence, or the threat of violence is also an issue faced by many employees in health care facilities. This is often found in—but not limited to—urban emergency rooms where patient acuity is high, waiting times for treatment are increased, and the tensions created by drug-related crimes and gang violence spill into facilities where medical care is provided.

Some facilities are better than others in terms of offering programs to help their health workers combat the effects of stress. Intelligent and forward-thinking facilities understand that the stress being experienced by their employees can often manifest in poorer outcomes for patients, thus a small investment in employee health (both mental and physical) can return very substantial gains, both measurable and non-measurable).

On the Front Lines

Those health care workers on the front lines are mostly there because they want to help others. These workers face a wide variety of risks and hazards every time they show up for their shifts. Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, orderlies, housekeepers and others deserve a healthy workplace, even when certain risks cannot be fully mitigated. Healthy health care workers deliver better care, thus it is in everyone’s interest—patients included—that our health care workers have the safest, cleanest and most risk-free work environments possible.