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Nurse leaders key to hospital sustainability efforts

Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, April 10, 2012

A few years ago, when I would hand my reusable shopping bags to a clerk in the store check-out line, I felt a little self-conscious about it. Now, I feel self-conscious when I forget them at home.

These days, environmentally aware lifestyle choices are extending beyond the grocery store. Whether it's recycling, opting to use earth-friendly household cleaners, or forgoing plastic water bottles, people are consuming more consciously and acting with the planet in mind.

But there's often a disconnect between what happens at home and what happens at work, and that includes hospitals. Employees want their organizations to be more environmentally conscious, but get overwhelmed thinking about the task of making a hospital "green."

This can be especially true for nurses who see firsthand the waste and use of environmentally unfriendly chemicals in their hospitals.

"I do feel there are a lot of interested nurses, but they don't know what to do about it," says Janet Brown, director of facility engagement for Practice Green Health and director of content and outreach for the new Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI). "Sometimes nurses think: ‘How can I be involved with sustainability? I'm on the unit.'"

The HHI is a three-year initiative developed by 11 sponsoring health systems and three non-profits that sets specific, measurable, environmental interventions for hospitals to implement. Hospitals gather and submit data to the program so they'll be able to see the business case for going green. "Sometimes going green can be very overwhelming," Brown tells HealthLeaders. "With this initiative, we really tried to hone in on what's achievable for people…it's not about pushing the envelope on sustainability. Hospitals can have success."

Once a hospital commits to improving its sustainability—whether it's with help from HHI or not—Brown says nurses have a critical role to play in helping the organization move forward with its plans. She says it starts with chief nursing officers, who should educate their staff about changes within the organization and what it will mean for nurses and patients.

"The more that a nurse leader is onboard with sustainability, the more they're able to use it as a vehicle for not only creating a healthier environment for the patients, but also for the nurses," Brown says. She says when nurses work in a healthy environment they're better able to help their patients.

Chemicals that are bad for the planet are often responsible for making people feel sick, too, especially nurses, who sometime don't realize that the nausea, skin rashes, headaches, and other maladies that they may experience might be related to the poisonous chemicals that they're exposed to in an effort to make the hospital "clean."

For example, Brown points to occupational asthma. Research shows that nurses are at a higher risk for it than the rest of the population, thanks to the caustic disinfectants, latex, and other irritants that are part of their everyday working lives.

Brown says that switching to more environmentally friendly cleaning products is one way to help both the earth and employee health. She adds that nurses are a critical link in the chain of communication between staff and patients.

Nurse leaders can educate nurses—who can in turn educate patients—that the floors might not look as shiny because they're not being treated with harsh chemicals anymore. Or if people don't smell disinfectant, it's not because the hospital isn't clean; it's because the hospital is using fragrance-free cleaners.

"They not only have to implement the program," Brown says. "But [there's] also an educational component."

Educated nurses can also be part of integrated design teams when building or rebuilding a hospital. For example, a sustainability-minded nurse can advocate for using safer building materials and avoiding formaldehyde in furniture.

"A lot of these products actually give off chemicals right into the breathing space," Brown says. Nurses who are involved with hospital design can also have input on the practicality of green initiatives—for example, making sure that the locations of recycling bins make sense for nurse workflow.

Brown says hospitals often find success when folding efforts initiatives into other initiatives, such as LEAN programs and improving employee engagement. And implementing these programs will help with more than just worker and environmental health. It's also good for morale.

"Hospitals that are engaged around sustainability find that their initiatives are a worker engagement success," Brown says. "Workers want this; they expect this; they do this at home."

Source: HealthLeaders Media