Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Nurses: Understaffing, Back Injuries, Violence and Now SARS

Every time I talk to a nurse about her or his working conditions, I marvel at the dedication to their jobs that gives them the courage and stamina to go to work every day. What strikes me most is that so many of them love their work, but often hate their jobs, or they hate the working conditions -- understaffing, constant heavy lifting, the threat of violence, the fear of communicable diseases -- that keep them from doing their jobs with the compassion and professionalism that they are capable of.

I also remember well the early days of AIDS when no one knew what caused it or exactly how it was transmitted or how to protect oneself -- and one's family. When we had to fight with hospitals to get the training and equipment that health care workers needed. When we had to fight with OSHA and the CDC to get them to listen to front line nurses' concerns and not just dismiss them, or assume that the public health "professionals" knew best. At that time, lots of workers -- doctors, corrections officers, food workers, teachers -- were scared, but on the front lines, with the most exposures, were always nurses. Now, as this Washington Post article describes, we're seeing many of the same issues with SARS.
The latest medical reports show that nurses are more likely to catch SARS than doctors, possibly because they work much more closely and over longer periods with SARS patients. About 8 percent to 15 percent of people who catch SARS die, and people who are 50 and older appear to be at higher risk of dying than younger people. The average age of nurses in the United States is 47.
Some hospitals are doing much better than others training nurses and providing them with the appropriate, properly fitted respirators and other equipment. But as was the case in the early days of AIDS (actually, not just the early days), the union was where those workers had to turn, not only for information, but for a voice. SEIU has a fact sheet for health care workers, and information is also available on the AFSCME web site.