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Protecting Health Care Workers from Needle Sticks

Occupational exposure to blood borne pathogens or diseases, such as Hepatitis B and C as well as HIV, poses a significant risk to the workers in the health care industry and related occupations. The primary cause of exposure to blood borne pathogens in this area is the accidental sticking by a needle or similar sharp object into the health care worker’s skin.

In the United States, approximately 800,000 needle sticks occur in hospitals annually. That averages to one injury every ten seconds. Approximately one-third of all these injuries occurred when the worker was disposing of the needle. Those most at risk are nurses and phlebotomists.

To reduce these injuries, two steps can be taken in the health care industry. First, we need safer needles, and secondly, we need better containers for disposing of needles.

With respect to needles, several suggestions have been brought forward. The easiest is substitution of the needle where possible with a needle-free IV connector. Other suggestions for reducing this hazard include using more blunt surgical needles or incorporating safety features such as a retractable needle syringe. While all of these options are available, most hospitals have been slow to adopt them because of the cost. The International Health Care Workers Safety Center of the University of Virginia estimates that more than 90% of syringes sold in the U.S. lack adequate safety features.

As for the containers used for disposing of needles and other sharp surgical objects, several recommendations have been made. These containers should remain functional during their entire use and should be durable, leak resistant, and puncture resistant. They should not be overstuffed and they should be capable of being opened safely when they are full.

The job of a health care worker is to treat the sick and to heal the injured. They cannot adequately do this job if they are themselves at risk. As with any work site, a health care facility must be a safe place to work. These employers still have a non-delegable duty to provide their workers with a safe place to work and safe tools to do the job.

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