SAN RAMON -- Eric Race is in the rescue business. From his former days as a firefighter to his current job as president and founder of San Ramon-based Atlas Lift Tech, the East Bay native lives to lift.

His unusual business provides training and workers to teach proper lifting techniques to health care workers and proper use of related equipment.

Growing up, Race loved to use his hands. He thought he might become a cabinet maker. He knew for certain he wasn't going to follow in the footsteps of his father, Stephen Race, who rescued underperforming companies like Reebok and Sony PlayStation from financial peril -- or his mother, Margaret Race, an ecologist who studies environmental impacts and policy issues relating to space exploration.

"I went to night school and got my EMT license while I was in high school," the now-27-year-old Race says. "I wanted to be a firefighter; to never be bored or have a predictable day."

The license allowed him to enroll straight out of high school at Columbia College in Sonora. There, he attended firefighting school while working 48-hour shifts for the state Department of Forestry. He loved the camaraderie of rope rescue and the teamwork of heavy rescue performed in trenches.

After paramedic school, he joined a lift team program at John Muir Medical Center, directing it for a year before being accepted for a firefighting job with the Stockton Fire Department. But within a year, Stockton went from having the seventh busiest fire department in the nation to record foreclosures and a city with a $56 million deficit. Race decided to jump ship ("It was a Hail Mary pass," he admits) and start Atlas.


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Atlas provides end-to-end, custom Safe Patient Handling and Mobility (SPHM) services to Bay Area health care facilities. With a client list that includes San Ramon Regional Medical Center, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, Marin General Hospital, Sutter-Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, and others, the five-year old company's growth is notable.

Operating in a specialized field designed to reduce suffering and costs due to workplace injuries, Race says the people he serves may have changed from fire victims to nurses, but the need is no less urgent.

"It's not a core competency in hospitals, but safe handling affects every nurse and patient, from intake to discharge," he says. "It's the single biggest driver of (hospital) worker compensation expenses."

The numbers back up his claim. Direct and indirect costs related to health care workers' injuries in the United States, primarily due to improper lifting, total $7.4 billion annually. With the number of bariatric (obese) patients increasing -- a National Health and Nutrition Examination survey showed a 12.6 percent jump between 1988 and 2008 -- and with the age of direct-to-patient, mostly female caregivers also rising, the outlook is grim.

"It's obvious, we need a standard of care," Race says.

Taking a hybrid approach that eliminates outsourced lift teams and requires no additional staffing, Atlas Lift coaches work within a facility to change the decades-old culture. "We provide a coach and the management, process and training, but they have to take ownership," Race says. An interdisciplinary committee, composed of clients' staff from various departments, works like an in-house think tank: ensuring everyone benefits from the program.

Race says successful implementation is not about equipment, it's about people. "You can invest millions of dollars in equipment, but if policy doesn't support the program, the whole thing breaks."

Although equipment isn't the centerpiece of Atlas' services, knowing how to use it is vital. Michael Crane, the company's director of program development, is a lift technician veteran and provides an overview at Atlas' San Ramon training room, explaining a Viking X's 660-pound vertical lift's capacity and demonstrating how to slide a patient laterally using a Yellow Sally Tube or The Pink Slip, a sponge-sized item that unfolds to work miracles while repositioning patients. "It costs maybe seven dollars," Crane says, "but it can save a hospital tens of thousands."

In the hospital, Crane works with nurses to use the patient's mobility and assess ever-changing conditions, like whether or not a patient is fatigued from therapy. He says it's not the bariatric patient that hurts a nurse's back, it's complacency and rushing. "It's the 90-pound patient they don't use safe practices to lift that causes injuries," he says. "In the States, nurses are working longer hours, having more initiatives thrust on them and are asked to perform at faster rates," he says. "The stress is different for every nurse, but the solution isn't: a handling process for every patient, erring on the side of safety."

At Marin General in Greenbrae, Atlas reduced average claims ($760,000) by 85 percent in one year.

At NorthBay Healthcare's Fairfield and Vacaville locations, the SPHM project manager, Linda Pryor, said Atlas services are "essential." In an "effectiveness assessment" done on the service, she highlighted a 74 percent reduction in costs due to injury -- from $253,732 to $65,302 -- during a three-month Atlas Lift pilot program. She said positive staff and patient feedback, along with a successful, no-violation evaluation after a recent, unannounced CalOSHA inspection, demonstrated the program's worth.

"We struggled for the last 15 years," she wrote in an email. "Connecting with Atlas provided us with the blueprint and position(ed) our program for the future."

Race likes to point out that, 20 years ago, wearing gloves wasn't a common medical procedure. Nowadays, it's standard. Figuring it takes about 17 years for an industry to change, he says SPHM -- rescuing health care workers -- is a practice and culture whose time has come.

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