Bed Rail Assessment and Safety in Aged Care
Published: 21 February 2024
Published: 21 February 2024
Bed rails, which might also be referred to as cot sides, side rails, side bars, grab bars or safety rails, are adjustable bars made of metal or rigid plastic components. They are attached to one or both sides of a medical bed and come in a variety of heights and lengths (SA Health 2015; SCV 2019a).
Bed rails are sometimes used when there are concerns that a resident will fall out of bed (SCV 2019b). They may also be used to support residents when they adjust themselves in bed or get in and out of bed (Baiera 2023). Some residents may be afraid of falling out of bed and feel more secure with bed rails in place (SCV 2019a, c).
However, bed rails are not necessarily safe and are considered a type of restrictive practice. Therefore, bed rails must only be used as a last resort where the benefits outweigh the risks (SCV 2019a).
If bed rails are ultimately used, this should be done in the safest way possible and in accordance with all legislation and requirements related to restrictive practices.
Bed rails are considered to be a type of mechanical restraint, even when used for safety purposes or to prevent harm to a resident. They are still a restrictive practice even if the resident consents to their use (ACQSC 2021).
The only times when bed rails are not considered a restrictive practice are when:
Like all other restrictive practices, bed rails have the potential to cause serious harm and should only be used as a last resort after alternative options have been exhausted and after considering the likely impacts on the resident (ACQSC 2021).
Like other restrictive practices, the use of bed rails requires a behaviour support plan to be put into place for the resident (ACQSC 2021).
Bed rail-related injuries and deaths have occurred both in Australia and overseas (SCV 2019a).
In the United States alone, between 1985 and 2013, there were 531 reported deaths related to bed rails, with causes of death including entrapment, entanglement and strangulation (Gibson 2021).
A Monash University study identified three deaths in Australian aged care facilities between 2000 and 2013 that were associated with bed rails. In all three cases, the resident died as a result of mechanical asphyxia after falling out of bed (Bellenger et al. 2017).
Injury and death often occur when a resident becomes trapped between the bed rail and their mattress. As older adults are frailer than other people, they may not be strong enough to dislodge themselves. Their body weight will cause them to sink further into the gap, and consequently, their chest cavity will be compressed, and they will struggle to breathe (Nursing Home Abuse Center 2019).
Other potential risks to residents include:
Furthermore, studies have found that bed rails don’t necessarily deter residents from getting out of bed unassisted, which can pose a serious risk of harm (SESLHD 2020).
If bed rails are poorly designed, maintained or fitted, the risk of injury increases (SESLHD 2020).
Safer Care Victoria has outlined five steps to using bed rails as safely as possible:
The decision to use bed rails as a restrictive practice must be made by an approved health practitioner who has day-to-day knowledge of the resident. This practitioner must have assessed the resident as posing a risk to themselves or others and assessed the use of bed rails as necessary. These assessments must all be documented (ACQSC 2021).
Bed rails should not be used in the following situations:
(SCV 2019a, c)
You will need to discuss the potential benefits and risks of using bed rails together with the resident and their family (SCV 2019a), taking into account:
Overall, it’s important to weigh up the likelihood of harm if bed rails are not used versus the likelihood of harm if bed rails are used (SESLHD 2020).
Ensure the resident has a behaviour support plan in place (ACQSC 2021).
Before deciding to use bed rails, you must first consider alternative strategies. Examples include:
If alternative strategies are deemed inappropriate and bed rails have been decided as the best option, you need to gain consent from the resident before using them. If the resident does not have decision-making capacity and the use of bed rails is indicated, you must get consent from the resident's restrictive practice substitute decision-maker instead (SCV 2019a; ACSQC 2021).
Once consent has been gained, the following needs to be documented:
Remember that the resident can withdraw their consent at any time (SCV 2019a).
The only time when bed rails can be used without consent from the resident (or their substitute decision-maker) is in an emergency situation - that is, a ‘serious or dangerous situation that is unanticipated or unforeseen and that requires immediate action’ (ACQSC 2021).
However, during an emergency, the resident’s restrictive practice substitute decision-maker must be informed as soon as possible once the restrictive practice has commenced (ACQSC 2021).
Furthermore, the following must also be documented in the resident’s care and services plan:
Bed rails must be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions. Furthermore, the combination of bed, mattress and bed rails being used must comply with the IEC/ISO Standard, Medical Electrical Equipment, 2015 - Part 2-52: Particular requirements for basic safety and essential performance of medical beds (SCV 2019a).
Entrapment or asphyxiation may occur in gaps between individual rails, gaps between the mattress and bed rail, or gaps between the bed rail and bedhead or bed end. Therefore, all gaps should be minimised as much as possible by:
(SCV 2019a, d)
Once the bed rails are in use, you must ensure any risks to the resident are minimised as much as possible by:
(SCV 2019a, d)
Like all types of restrictive practices, bed rails should only be used for the shortest length of time possible. The decision to use bed rails should be continually monitored, reviewed and documented, and their use should be reduced or stopped as soon as an appropriate alternative strategy can be employed instead (ACSQC 2021).
Remember to always comply with regulations and legislation regarding the use of restrictive practices. For more information, see Ausmed’s Training Module on Minimising Restrictive Practices in Residential Aged Care.
Question 1 of 3
Which one of the following is a situation where bed rails are not considered to be a restrictive practice?