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Bed Rails for Elderly Responsible for Dozens of Deaths

Nursing home abuse and neglect lawyers at Pintas & Mullins highlight a recently article published in the Chicago Tribune concerning the known risks of bed rails for the elderly.

Bed rails were designed and introduced into seniors’ homes and long-term care facilities to increase mobility and independence, however, the effects of these medical devices have been devastating and often fatal. Federal agencies have known, for decades in fact, about the dangers of bed rails. If an elderly person becomes stuck between the mattress and bed rail, which is not uncommon, it can easily kill them if they are too sick, confused, or feeble to free themselves.

Such was the case in 2012 in a retirement community in Decatur, Illinois, when a nurse entered a resident’s room to find her lifeless body. Her head became stuck between the mattress and bed rail at some point during the night, pressing her face into the mattress and suffocating her.

Serious injury may also occur from patients attempting to climb over the rails or if the devices are ever used to restrain someone, such as those with severe dementia, Alzheimer’s, or anxiety disorders. The FDA is responsible for regulating bed rails that quality as medical devices, and to date has received more than 900 reports of patients becoming strangled, trapped, or entangled in hospital bed rails, along with 160 reports of similar incidents involving portable bed rails, including 155 fatalities.

In Illinois, regulators have cited at least ten nursing homes in the past two years for putting residents at risk of entrapment or suffocation and failing to protect them from serious injuries related to bed rails, including for using the rails as restraints. The inspection reports did not, however, detail how many deaths have been linked to bed rails.

Somewhat surprisingly, bed rails intended for children are required to meet certain safety standards before being placed on market, however, the same requirements do not exist for adult bed rails. Even when certain products cause deaths in multiple patients, they are not recalled or taken out of circulation for post-market review. This issue illuminates a troubling and oft-ignored problem in the United States: issues affecting the elderly are simply not seen as pertinent or important as those affecting children or younger adults.

There is a wide array of varieties for bed rails, such as metal or plastic, ones that may be raised or lowered, be removed or stay in place. Portable bed rails in particular have raised abundant concerns in recent years. These devices can attach to almost any bed, and are under the jurisdiction of the CPSC. Since they are meant to attach anywhere, there is usually a significant gap between the rail and the mattress, posing dangerous risks to seniors who may catch their neck of chest in the gap.

Steven Miles, a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota and one of the first people to notify federal authorities about bed rail fatalities, affirms that those who become stuck in these gaps are not able to inhale or even scream for help. The air is literally squeezed out of their lungs; and the problem is compounded as falls often occur in smaller seniors who do not have the strength to extricate themselves.

In one example from 2008, a 99-year-old nursing home resident with dementia and a known fall risk died of compression asphyxia due to being trapped between the rail and mattress. The medical examiner also found that the compression caused her neck to fracture. Fortunately, after the incident, the facility reworked its protocols for side rails and removed them if residents so wished.

In May 2013, a group of more than 60 organizations filed a petition that requested the CPSC recall and ban all adult bed rails, or at least create a set of safety standards. A spokesperson for the agency stated, however, that voluntary consensus standards must be pursued first.

Officials cited Morton Villa Healthcare in Illinois in 2012 for using side rails with medical need for at least five patients. In one case at the facility, a patient crawled over the rails, landed on the floor and fractures his wrist and femur. This and other cases like it illustrate that bed rails are far from the most effective way to prevent falls. The best way to keep vulnerable patients safe is to watch them diligently, place a mattress or padding on the floor, and lower the bed if possible. Both the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Joint Commission prohibit the use of restraints, including bed rails.

Nursing home neglect lawyers at Pintas & Mullins encourage anyone with a loved one in an assisted living facility to check-up on their facility’s bed rail restraint policy. If you or someone you know was seriously injured by a bed rail, you may be entitled to significant compensation for you injuries through a lawsuit against the manufacturer. Our attorneys are always available for free legal consultations.