Bed Rails In Nursing Homes -- Helpful Or Killers?

Bed rails in nursing facilities can be as dangerous as they are helpful. Particularly for older, confused, or frail nursing home residents, injuries or death caused by bed rails frequently happen. As Des Moines personal injury lawyers, we’re aware that many nursing home residents have been seriously injured or have died because they became stuck between a bed rail and a bed frame or mattress. The nursing home resident can suffocate if they’re unable to free themselves or call for help.

Bed rails can serve two purposes in nursing facilities. Sometimes they’re used to help residents get up and out of bed. Bed rails can also be used to prevent residents from falling out of bed. But bed rails can also be dangerous, especially for the types of nursing facility residents described above. The greatest danger exists when the bed frame or mattress does not fit well with the bed frames. A gap between the mattress and the bed rail can result, sometimes large enough for a person to become stuck.

In 1985 the FDA published a Safety Alert on the risks of bed rail entrapment, among other parts of nursing home and hospital beds. As a result, bed rail manufacturers began selling safer bed rails. Yet, despite the FDA’s warnings and the statistics set forth below, the federal government has never issued any safety recalls of bed rails.

Since the FDA’s 1985 Safety Alert, the FDA has compiled statistics that demonstrate the hazards of bed rails to nursing facility residents. Between 1985 and 2008 there were 722 recorded incidents of nursing home residents strangled, entangled, trapped, or caught by bed rails. The potential risks of bed rails include:

  • Bruising, cuts, and abrasions.

  • Using bed rails may lead to a patient becoming increasingly agitated if the rails are applied as a restraint.

  • In an effort to get over the rail, the patient may suffer serious injury if they lose their balance and fall.

  • For some patients the use of bed rails makes them feel unnecessarily restricted or isolated.

  • Being placed in bed rails can make it impossible for some older patients to perform routine activities without assistance. These may include getting something to eat or drink or going to the bathroom.

  • Bodily injury, suffocation, strangulation, or death. This may occur if part of the patient’s body is caught between the mattresses and bed rails.

  • Improper installation of bed rails.

  • Improper fit between bed rails and the mattress or bed frame.

Because of such statistics and evidence, in 1999 the FDA, along with medical bed manufacturers, national healthcare organizations, patient advocacy groups, and other federal agencies, created the Hospital Bed Safety Workgroup (HBSW). The HBSW’s main accomplishment has been the production of a safety brochure for nursing facilities. The HBSW’s brochure offers guidelines for choosing a bed and directions on measuring for excessive and dangerous gaps between the bed rails and the mattress. 

Harley Erbe