Bed rails a major threat to nursing home safety

When people are admitted to nursing homes, it is usually because they are too ill or infirm to be cared for properly at home. Thus, it is always disturbing to learn of situations where admission into a nursing home actually increased the likelihood of serious injury or death.

A recent story in The New York Times highlighted the role that bed rails have played in nursing home injuries and deaths throughout the United States. According to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approximately 4,000 adults seek emergency room treatment each year because of bed rail injuries. At least 27 people were killed in bed rail-related accidents in 2011 alone. Approximately 550 people have died since the federal government first warned of the problem in 1995.

Bed rails are supposed to help patients with tasks like getting in and out of bed or pulling themselves up. They are also often used to prevent nursing home patients from accidentally rolling out of bed. The risk comes from the fact that there is often a sizable gap between the rail and the mattress. Patients can get their limbs, heads, or even their whole bodies trapped in this gap, causing suffocation, serious injury or death. The risk is particularly acute for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia or mobility limitations.

Newer models of bed rails – especially those that are freestanding – tend to be safer than older varieties. In addition, nursing homes can use restraints to help secure residents who are at risk of becoming entrapped.

Safety regulations lacking

The issue is especially troubling considering that federal regulators and nursing home facilities have known about the risks for so long.

The issue first rose to prominence in 1995 when a professor from the University of Minnesota alerted the FDA to data showing a history of bed rail-related deaths. The agency issued safety alerts to care providers, but did not mandate the use of warning labels on bed rails because of concerns of backlash from industry groups and elected officials. The FDA has still not placed formal safety requirements on bed rail manufacturers, though it did issue “voluntary guidelines” in 2006. One former FDA official admitted to The New York Times that none of the bed rails on the market at the time would have met the safety guidelines if they had been made mandatory.

In addition, there is significant disagreement over which agency should regulate bed rails. The FDA claims that many bed rails – especially those sold at medical supply stores or for home use – are not medical devices, but rather consumer safety products. As such, the FDA claims that the bed rails should be regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC, in turn, claims that all bed rails are medical devices and therefore outside its scope of review.

Bed rail lawsuits

Nursing home residents who are injured in bed rail accidents may have the ability to recover compensation for their injuries. If the injury was caused by a defective product or unsafe product design, the victim may be able to recover damages from the seller or manufacturer in a product liability lawsuit. If the injury was caused by improper care or supervision at the nursing home, the victim may be able to pursue a nursing home negligence lawsuit. Additionally, when a bed rail accident results in death, the victim’s family may be able to seek justice by pursuing a lawsuit for wrongful death.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a bed rail accident or any other type of nursing home incident, it is important to take steps to protect your rights. Talk to an experienced personal injury attorney who can help you understand your options.

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