If you’ve ever watched So You Think You Can Dance, you’ve probably realized you can’t do it that well after all. So You Think You Can Pilot a Space Shuttle? Not even a real show, but if it were, chances are you couldn’t do that, either — though it would make for compelling reality television.
How about a show called So You Think You Can Be a Nurse? If you’re a medical professional, you’re probably thinking, “I’ve so got this.” Unfortunately, no such show is coming to TLC anytime soon — you’re stuck with dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Saving Hope for now (as juicy as they are) — but you’re not alone if you sometimes think, “How am I even coping?”
You’ve gone through the training; you’ve had your share of difficult patients, and now you’ve earned the right to vent. While there are some incredibly gratifying things about being a nurse, you’ve also realized that, oh, wait, this profession can be sort of dangerous sometimes. And only your fellow nurses can understand your woes.
Here are eight workplace dangers only nurses have to deal with (and, really, deserve more appreciation for putting up with them).
1. Accidental Needle Sticks
Even after the enactment of the Needlestick and Safety Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 2000 to ensure safer equipment for medical professionals, you’ve heard the recent stats — the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) estimates 5.6 million health care professionals are at risk of blood borne pathogens from accidental sticks.
What is a nurse to do with this danger? Put on her best armor, of course.
Skip the scrubs — it’s time to party like it’s 500 B.C. You need to get medieval on your patients, even if you look like a gladiator. Worst case scenario? You’ll appear as a “knight in shining armor.” Literally.
If only your hospital administrator would approve this new uniform policy. For now, you’re “stuck” — pun intended — wearing your scrubs and being extra-cautious when it comes to handling needles. Someday, maybe, your hospital administrator will let you wear some metal and re-enact the Middle Ages at the same time.
2. Infection From Body Secretions
You know that urine sample you just asked your new patient to provide? Treat it like a bomb.
No, it’s not going to blow up on you — hopefully — but it’s a bodily fluid capable of transmitting infection if you’re not careful. If you’ve been in the business long enough, you’ve probably also dealt with blood, semen and vaginal fluids. All of these put you at risk of exposure to hepatitis C (HCV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other diseases.
Chances are your patient isn’t a walking explosion, but you don’t want to take your chances. Always wear gloves when handling body secretions. Really, you don’t want to touch it directly anyway, right? Let’s face it — it’s pretty gross, no matter what your patient is being admitted for.
3. Smoke Plume
Remember your high school chemistry classes? Benzene, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and the rest of those fancy names? You probably can’t name them all, but they create toxic gasses that are harmful to your own respiratory system when you’re exposed to them.
If you spend any time in an operating room, you’re especially at risk of exposure to surgical smoke. Wear the mask now, whether it’s made of the traditional procedure fabric or even the gorilla-themed plastic you put on during last October’s crazy party. Just make sure you do what you can to make sure you’re breathing in oxygen, not noxious fumes.
4. Aching Feet
You’re familiar with the Billy Ray Cyrus song, “Achy Breaky Heart.” But what about those achy breaky feet you know so well?
As a nurse, you’re sick of hearing cubicle monkeys complain about eight hours of sitting in front of a computer. You’re on your feet all day, often for 12-hour shifts, multiple days in a row. If anyone has the right to complain, it’s you!
The agony of the feet (not defeat) is no joke. Sometimes, ibuprofen doesn’t cut it. You know what? You deserve a massage. You’re in the helping profession, so go spoil yourself with a much-earned rub down. You earned it.
5. Back Strain
It’s not just your feet that can hurt after a long shift. Lower back strain from trying to lift your patients, whether they’ve fallen or you’re trying to handle a stretcher, can be even more severe than a little bit of soreness.
According to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those in the nursing profession suffer approximately 35,000 back and other injuries per year. These can be so severe that they cause missed work days.
Unless you’re the Incredible Hulk and can bench 400 pounds, don’t try to lift or transport patients by yourself. The hospital may be short-staffed, but it’ll be even more short-staffed if you have to call in injured and stay in bed (or admit yourself to your own emergency room). Grab the strongest colleagues you can find to assist you. Your ego will be okay in the long run.
When you signed up to be a nurse, you probably didn’t think you could become a victim, too.
Unfortunately, nurses risk facing epidemic levels of violence from the people they’re taking care of. Specifically, nurses and other health care providers consistently deal with aggression from mentally ill patients, the elderly with dementia and even caregivers under stress about their loved ones.
Time to sign up for that self-defense course you’ve been eyeing for a while. You know you’ve always wanted to learn kung fu. You never can be too prepared — it may come in handy during your next clinical case.
As Mr. Miyagi wisely taught in Karate Kid: “Wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence.” Of course, this should be a last resort. As a nurse, you and your staff probably have an arsenal of tranquilizers to try before you break out the karate moves.
But you never know. And who doesn’t like a little martial arts?
7. Radiation Exposure
The band Imagine Dragons is all the rage right now, and if you listen to mainstream radio, you know the song in which they sing, “I’m radioactive.”
You know it’s a metaphor. You don’t literally want to be radioactive (though it would be trippy to glow in the dark for a day).
Unfortunately, many nursing professionals, especially those working in the intensive care unit (ICU), face the occupational hazard of becoming over-exposed to ionizing radiation caused by instruments like X-ray and computerized axial tomography (CT) machines. Over time, this radiation exposure can have acute or chronic effects like nausea, vomiting, weakness and even forms of cancer.
Best to split your time around radiation instruments with your colleagues to avoid this exposure too often. Lasers are cool and all, but you want to save them for your next cathartic adventure at the laser tag course. After all, what better way than laser tag to blow off some steam?
8. Long Hours
You’ve just worked a 12-hour shift, but you can’t leave the hospital until you’ve finished filing your patient charts. You’re freaking out because you know you have only six hours until your next shift — and as much as you want to devote those hours to sleep, you still need to account for driving.
Then, the hospital director asks you to stay on for an extra few hours because the emergency room is crowded and you’re short-staffed.
As much as you want to please your boss and gain that overtime compensation, long shifts for nurses lead to negative consequences such as burnout and patient dissatisfaction with medical care. In fact, nurses who routinely work shifts of 10 hours or longer are significantly more likely than those with shorter shifts to leave their jobs — and their patients suffer, too.
While the crazy hours may be out of your control, make the most of the free time you do have. Go get that much-needed massage. Take a nap and don’t feel bad about it. And when your best friend calls you up for some medical advice, it’s okay to tell her you don’t have a lot of time to talk shop until later.
Remember: You spend so much time nursing other people back to health, and you confront the danger zone every day to do it. Every now and then, it’s perfectly acceptable to take the time to nurse yourself, too.
Sometimes, even nursing professionals need to treat themselves as patients — and with patience.