Are Bed Rails for the Elderly a Safety Measure or Hazard?

Elderly woman in a bed with safety rails

John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Some frail elderly have a hard time getting in and out of bed. Others may thrash around in bed while awake or sleeping, putting themselves in danger of falling out of the bed. To help with mobility, and safety, and encourage independence, many nursing homes and residential caregivers rely on bed rails.

When used or manufactured improperly, bed rails (also called side rails or safety rails) can pose a hazard. When this happens, nursing homes can be liable for medical malpractice and manufacturers can be liable for product liability.

 

The Statistics Are Frightening

Two types of injuries are most commonly associated with bed rails. Older adults can get trapped in the gap between the bed rail and the mattress, or between the rails themselves, causing strangulation or asphyxiation. Often, the elderly are too weak, frail or confused to change position and save themselves.

Other times, elderly individuals (especially those with confusion or dementia) try to get out of bed by climbing over the rails. This leads to falls and associated injuries. Other injuries associated bed rails are skin bruising, cut and scrapes.

Between 2003 and 2011, nearly 37,000 people were treated at hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with bed-rail accidents. One hundred and fifty-five of them died. These numbers are likely much higher, due to failure to report the actual cause of injury or death.

 

Bed Rails Are Not Regulated

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first issued warnings about bed rails back in 1995. Because the industry was aggressively resistant, however, the government did not require that manufacturers place safety labels on the devices. The industry agreed to adopt some voluntary guidelines.

In new voluntary guidelines issued in 2006, the FDA instructed hospitals and nursing homes on the use of bed rails. The guidelines recommended size limits for the gaps between mattresses and rails, and the openings between rails, and identified body parts most at risk for getting stuck. Although newer hospital beds with side rails and stand-alone bed rails are better designed, injuries and fatalities continue.

 

Bed Rails Are Being Investigated

A federal investigation in early 2013 was launched into the deaths of elderly people due to problems relating to bed rails. In June, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced formation of a committee to develop voluntary standards for adult portable bed rails.

Some consumer advocates are saying the safety standards are not enough, and are asking for an outright ban. They are also seeking product recalls.

 

Claims Related to Bed Rails

As part of the intake process (and regularly thereafter), nursing homes are required to assess the needs of residents. This can result in use of bed rails to assist with patient mobility and ensure patient safety. A nursing home that fails to monitor safe usage of bed rails, switch out defective equipment, or consider alternative measures like lowering a bed or using safety mats, may be liable for medical malpractice.

Additionally, manufacturers of faulty products may be liable for product liability lawsuits.

 

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