Nursing home negligence: The potential danger of improper bed rails

When bed rails are thought of they are normally believed to be a safety device, but it seems that the design of some bed rails and their inappropriate use has lead to a significant risk of injury or death for residents at nursing homes and among elderly who use them in their care at home. The issue of improperly designed and inappropriately used bed rails concerns an intersection of duties between manufacturers who own a duty of care to consumers to produce safe goods and nursing homes that owe a certain standard of care to residents. Therefore, a manufacturer and/or a nursing home may be held responsible if a nursing home resident is wrongly injured by bed rail use.

Over the last decade, bed rails have contributed to a significant number of deaths and injuries among older adults. From 2003 to the middle of 2012, 150 older adults died after being trapped in bed rails, and over the same time period, about 36,000 older adults were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to bed rails, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Moreover, officials with the federal consumer safety commission and the Food and Drug Administration believe the problem is understated since bed rails are not always recorded as the cause of the death by coroners, doctors and nursing homes.

What are bed rails? Bed rails are metal bars used in hospital and nursing home beds and in home care to prevent individuals from rolling out of bed and are also used to help residents assist themselves when getting out of bed or to help residents pull themselves up in bed. However, sometimes residents with dementia, such as Alzheimer's, may become disoriented and trapped between the mattress and bed rail, increasing the risk of serious injury and even death.

The problem with bed rails is linked to their design and to care-staff responsible for the well-being of nursing home residents or elderly who receive home care. Issues with the design of bed rails were recognized as far back as 1995 when federal regulators were first made aware of improper design linked with deaths. The gaps and openings in the designs of some bed rails contributed to an increased risk of body parts becoming stuck. However, regulation of improved designs has been delayed until recently because of regulatory gaps between the FDA, which regulates medical devices, and the federal consumer safety commission, which regulates consumer goods. The federal consumer safety commission had long held that bed rails were medical devices outside its purview, but the FDA identified bed rails as consumer goods. Fortunately, the disconnect in the regulation of design may soon change as the FDA has started to review injuries and deaths related to bed rails, and the federal consumer safety commission is also working with the FDA to eliminate the lack of regulatory coverage.

As the population that needs nursing home care and at-home care grows, the issue only becomes more important to resolve. Those within the elder care industry say bed rails remain an effective means of keeping elderly residents safe, but problems occur when different parts of the bed are produced by different manufacturers. Dangerous gaps allegedly occur when the frame, mattress and bed rails come from different manufacturers, and the gaps allow a person to slip out between the mattress and rail, risking serious injury. At the very least, instructions for bed rails should warn about the potential danger. Moreover, nursing home staff should also be aware of the risk, adjust care accordingly and inform residents and family members to reduce the chance of serious injury.

If you or a family member has been injured while in the care of a nursing home or caretaker, contact an experienced personal injury attorney who can advocate for your rights in court.