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Petitioners Ask OSHA to Regulate Resident Physician Work Hours

Posted Sep 19 2010 8:01pm
photo by bouette

photo by bouette

On September 2, Assistant Secretary David Michaels for Occupational Safety and Health received a petition requesting that OSHA regulate resident physician and subspecialty resident physicians.  “Depending on the type of residency, physicians-in-training can work anywhere from 60 to 100 or more hours a week, sometimes without a day off for two weeks or more.”  The petition requests that OSHA exercise the authority granted under §3(8) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to implement the following federal work-hour standard:

(1)   A limit of 80 hours of work in each and every week, without averaging;

(2)   A limit of 16 consecutive hours worked in one shift for all resident physicians and subspecialty resident physicians;

(3)   At least one 24-hour period of time off work per week and one 48-hour period of time off work per month for a total of five days off work per month, without averaging;

(4)   In-hospital on-call frequency no more than once every three nights, no averaging;

(5)   A minimum of at least 10 hours off work after a day shift, and a minimum of 12 hours off after a night shift;

(6)   A maximum of four consecutive night shifts with a minimum of 48 hours off after a sequence of three or four night shifts.

More information about the petition can be found at the Public Citizen-run website, WakeUpDoctor.org .

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), “[a]s the accrediting body for more than 8,800 medical residency programs,… is charged with setting and enforcing standards for supervision and resident duty hours for graduate medical education.”  In 2002, OSHA denied a petition by Public Citizen, the Committee of Internists and Residents (CIR), and American Medical Student Association, citing the voluntary adoption of standards by ACGME.  In 2003, the ACGME set standards that restricted resident work hours to 80 hours per week when averaged over four weeks and no more than 30 consecutive hours of work.  (A breakdown of the differences between the OSHA petition and ACGME 2003 standards can be found here .)

Hourglass with bones, Timeglass på gammel gravplate i golvet i Hedrum kirke. Arnstein Rønning

Hourglass with bones, Timeglass på gammel gravplate i golvet i Hedrum kirke. Arnstein Rønning

In 2007, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) evaluated resident work standards pursuant to a request from Congress. The resulting report, “ Resident Duty Hours: Enhancing Sleep, Supervision, and Safety ” found, among other things, that considerable scientific evidence demonstrates that “30 hours of continuous time awake, as is permitted and common in current resident work schedules, can result in fatigue, and that adjustments to the 2003 rules are needed.”  In response, the ACGME proposed revised standards for resident work hours and supervision.  The comment period ended on August 9 and the changes will be implemented after July 2011.

According to petitioners, the ACGME revised standards are not sufficient.  A study by Landrigan et al. found that even after implementation of the ACGME’s 2003 standards:

  • The average work week was 66.6 hours (95% confidence interval [CI] 66.3-66.9);
  • The mean length of an extended shift was 29.9 hours (95% CI, 29.8-30);
  • 29% of all work weeks were more than 80 hours in duration, 12.1% were 90 or more, and 3.9% were 100 hours or more;
  • 83.6% of all interns reported hours of work in violation of the professional self-regulations that were established and are being monitored by the ACGME. This number far exceeds the rates of violations reported by resident physicians and residency programs to the ACGME, indicating both that widespread under-reporting exists, and that the ACGME’s enforcement has been ineffective.

According to the petition, these numbers of hours are among the highest in the professional world and negatively affect personal health and safety.  Despite the previous rejection of a similar petition in 2002, the petitioners have changed their strategy in appealing to OSHA:  “Whereas previous appeals to limit resident physicians’ work hours have focused on the well-documented risks patients face due to tired physicians, this petition concentrates on the often-overlooked health risks faced by the resident physicians who endure those long hours.”  These risks include:

  • Motor Vehicle Accidents In addition to anecdotal evidence that resident fatigue after long work hours has resulted in physical injury and death, the petition offered the following research:
  • Mental Health
  • Pregnancy
  • Percutaneous Injuries (such as needlestick injuries)

Additionally, this petition has more public support than the one submitted in 2002.  Petitioners include:

In order to fulfill OSHA’s mission “to send every worker home whole and healthy every day,” the petition argues that OSHA must “act now to address the dangers that extreme work hours pose for resident physicians and subspecialty resident physicians.”

In a statement released the same day , Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels recognized the concerns raised by the petition:

We are very concerned about medical residents working extremely long hours, and we know of evidence linking sleep deprivation with an increased risk of needle sticks, puncture wounds, lacerations, medical errors and motor vehicle accidents. We will review and consider the petition on this subject submitted by Public Citizen and others.

The relationship of long hours, worker fatigue and safety is a concern beyond medical residents, since there is extensive evidence linking fatigue with operator error… All employers must recognize and prevent workplace hazards. That is the law. Hospitals and medical training programs are not exempt from ensuring that their employees’ health and safety are protected.

However, ACGME believes that the revised rules under development are adequate.  According to medpagetoday.com , the ACGME said the following in a prepared statement:

As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reviews a petition from three special interest groups requesting federal regulation of resident duty hours, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education stands ready to share with OSHA the many studies, evidence, and documentation that substantiate the standards proposed by the ACGME Task Force on Quality Care and Professionalism.

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