Melda Okoye doesn’t like to wait for change, she’d rather initiate it. Her passion she says stems from her own career-threatening back injuries after more than 25 years of nursing. “I drove home after many shifts in tears because of the pain. I decided I didn’t want anyone else to endure that too,” she says.
Always active in her union, Local 097 of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), Okoye’s interest was peaked by notice of health and safety training sponsored by ONA and the Workers Health and Safety Centre. She went ahead and attended the training pilot of Reducing Injuries: An Ergonomic Approach to Patient Lifting
. Before the training had ended Okoye was already pressing her nurse manager to pilot the program on their unit, the cardiac ward at Toronto General Hospital (TGH). Okoye’s unit then had 11 nursing staff on a modified work program, seven with back injuries, another four with shoulder injuries.
The unit ran the Workers Centre program and tracked the results. Within one year the lost time injury rate fell by more than 70 per cent. Okoye says since then the rate has dropped by more than 90 per cent.
Wanting to see the training expanded throughout the University Health Network (UHN) which includes TGH, Toronto Western Hospital and Princess Margaret, in 1999 Okoye presented her unit’s success story to the hospital’s joint health and safety committee. It then occurred to her, “I thought it was time I participate on the joint committee because to really get things done you need to be there.” In preparation she completed a number of Workers Centre training programs and by January, 2000 was elected to the joint committee as a worker representative.
Since then Okoye has worked steadily, including meeting with the UHN’s chief executive officer, to have the Workers Centre training provided throughout the three hospitals. She says convincingly, “The hospital spends money to replace injured nursing staff when instead they could use those funds to educate staff and prevent injuries before they happen.”
The UHN is currently considering providing the training to some 2,000 hospital employees. Okoye, also a WHSC-qualified instructor, looks forward to delivering the training to other colleagues.
Back on her own unit Okoye has put her training into action. Backed by a supportive nurse manager, unit funds were used to invest in additional transfer and lifting aids, including four ceiling lifts.
Trying to promote a zero manual lift program she says requires a change in approach that has to begin from day one at nursing school. By example she says, on a construction site labourers ask straightaway for the forklift when they have to move something. Why should nurses injure themselves, she asks, when equipment exists to do the lifting for them?
Okoye admits the pace of change is a little slow for her liking. Having lobbied the CEO, she says she’s prepared to lobby the provincial government for regulations if she has to. England’s 1992 Manual Handling Operations Regulations
she says forced the health care industry there to explore ways to eliminate lifting by insisting on appropriate equipment, techniques and practices. Moreover, the regulations have fostered a ‘slide…don’t lift’ philosophy which Okoye fully supports.
Ontario Nurses’ Association president, Barb Wahl, says of Okoye, “With more than 25 years of experience, Melda is a strong advocate for nurses in her workplace. She is a knowledgeable and dynamic health and safey representative. Through her joint health and safety committee she has helped implement preventative measures that have contributed to a significant reduction in musculoskeletal injuries at her facility. Melda is a great example for our members to follow.”