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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
NHS accidents on the increase
Nurse with patient
Nurses can risk injury on the ward

The number of accidents involving NHS staff increased by almost a quarter - despite a government pledge to cut the number by 20%, latest figures show.

A report from the public sector watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) has blamed much of the increase on increased workloads and staff shortages.

It said staff accidents could be costing the NHS at least 173m a year. But it warned the total cost was likely to be significantly higher.

The government has said it was seeking to reduce the number of accidents - slips, trips and falls, injuries while moving and handling patients, needle injuries and exposure to harmful chemicals.

The number of accidents has gone up considerably. The government is not going to meet its target
Karen Taylor, report's author

But the number actually increased by 24% to 135,000.

The NAO said there had only been "patchy" improvements across the 297 English NHS trusts.

It found 23% had managed to achieve the government's target - but 64% had seen an increase in accidents.

The NAO said many trusts were not fully implementing government guidance on how to reduce the risk of staff accidents, with a major gap between the best and the worst performing trusts.

Often, accidents occurred simply because equipment such as hoists or wheelchairs were in the wrong place, it said.

And it warned the problem could be under -estimated, with perhaps only around 40% of accidents reported.

National strategy

A fifth of trusts questioned said staff shortages and increased workload had led to difficulties in complying with guidelines, leading to an increase in accidents.

But it said more awareness amongst staff of the need to report accidents and better recording systems had also contributed to the rise.

However, the NAO said more could be done - particularly in the worse-performing trusts

It said the NHS should develop a national health and safety strategy and provide more guidance for trusts.

It called on all trusts to have a "more consistent and robust approach" to identifying, recording and reporting incidents.

Karen Taylor, the report's author, said: "The number of accidents has gone up considerably. The government is not going to meet its target.

"This is partly due to increased awareness but trusts say that the increase is due to workloads and staff shortages which, in turn, lead to accidents."

Nurses can no longer be expected to face the possibility that they may injure their back or contract a serious disease at work
Mike Travis, Royal College of Nursing

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO: "More needs to be done to reduce the number of staff accidents in NHS trusts."

He said progress had been made, but many trusts were still not implementing the best practice guidelines.

Sir John added: "At a time when it is crucial to recruit and retain staff, the NHS must show that the health and safety of its staff is a top priority."

Mike Travis, an RCN spokesman on health and safety at work, said: "What's so infuriating is that many of these accidents are preventable.

"Nurses remain a scarce resource. The NHS must take immediate steps to provide a working environment that protects nurses from risk.

"The RCN wants to see action taken to ensure that the number of accidents is reduced.

"Nurses can no longer be expected to face the possibility that they may injure their back or contract a serious disease at work."

'Tackle it head-on'

Glenn Pascoe, risk manager at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, said he thought much of the increase was due to better reporting.

He told the BBC: "I don't think you can say it will never happen, but I think we are making great strides to ensure that we're acting to reduce the incidence of these things happening."

Sir Nigel Crisp, NHS chief executive said: "The report rightly highlights where more needs to be done, but does recognise the wide range of initiatives undertaken by the Department to improve management and monitoring of health and safety risks."

Gill Morgan, chief executive of managers' body the NHS Confederation, said: "We recognise the importance of managing risk to NHS staff and accept that more can be done to reduce the number of accidents to staff.

"The cost of accidents to staff is not acceptable to the NHS in human, organisational or financial terms."

Shadow Health Minister Tim Loughton said: "This is yet another example of the government pouring money into the NHS yet not delivering results."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris, warned there was a huge risk to patients when staff shortages occur due to accidents, sickness and stress.

The BBC's Christopher Hogg
"This report says some NHS trusts are much better at reducing risks than others"

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