Five Safety Tips for Health Care Workers

The health care industry is the fastest-growing sector in the U.S. It employs more than 18 million workers and 80 percent of this workforce is women.

Health care workers are exposed to several serious safety and health hazards on the job. In fact, illnesses in the workplace and nonfatal injuries are highest among the U.S. health care workers. They are exposed to a wide range of health risks and hazards including back injuries, needlestick injuries, latex allergy, bloodborne pathogens, potential chemical and drug exposures, laser hazards, radioactive material and x-ray hazards, waste anesthetic gas exposures, workplace violence, and stress.

The injury rates are even higher in home care settings, where workers face a multitude of safety risks, including falls, car accidents, overexertion, and hostile pets.

How Many Health Care Workers Get Injured or Sick in the Workplace?
As mentioned, the injury rate among health care and social assistance workers is higher than any other sector. The work-related illness and injuries faced by health care workers are even greater than those belonging to manufacturing and construction industry. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five nonfatal occupational injuries reported in 2013 occurred among health care workers. In the same year, 66,910 cases of occupational musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) were reported among health care and social assistance workers. Nursing aides, attendants, and orderlies suffered the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders.

It is not just doctors, nurses, and medical workers who are exposed to such health hazards and risks; other people working in health care facilities are also facing similar hazards. For example, people working in the medical equipment maintenance, mechanical maintenance, building and grounds maintenance, food service, laundry, housekeeping, and administrative staff have reported nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the workplace.

The workers, however, have a right to claim workers' compensation if they have been subjected to nonfatal occupational injuries or illnesses in the workplace. Just like every other professional, health care workers, too, have a right to a safe workplace, and the hospital/medical facility must provide a safe and healthful workplace. There are laws related to it. Employees can also seek help from workers' compensation lawyers for exercising their rights.

Though it is hardly possible to eliminate the risks associated with the health care and social assistance industry, these safety tips will help workers to avoid extreme situation and reduce the risks.

1. Take Precautions to Avoid Bloodborne Pathogens
Health care workers often come in contact with patients' body fluids and are therefore exposed to bloodborne pathogens. In this case, bacterial and viral infections are transmitted through blood and other body fluids. The risk for infection increases when a worker comes in contact with these fluids. Health care workers should therefore take necessary precautions and wear personal protective equipment to avoid contamination. Gowns, gloves, safety goggles, and faceshields will keep body fluids off the worker's skin.

The hospital/health care facility must also ensure proper management of exposures and reduce/kill the presence of infection-causing micro-organisms within the facility. Some of the best practices include:

  • Practicing hand hygiene
  • Using antiseptics and disinfectant on skin prior to a surgical procedure or I.V. injection
  • Cleaning and decontamination of instruments

Workers who could be exposed also must be immunized against hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne or airborne pathogens.

2. Be Careful with Sharps Injuries
Scalpels, needles, and other sharp objects that have been used in medical facilities are usually contaminated. Health care workers often come in contact with them. To avoid health hazards arising from them, it is important to follow an appropriate disposal system for all sharps and infectious waste. In addition, workers must be careful when handling sharp items because sharps injuries usually increase the risk of infectious diseases.

Avoid the use of needles, if possible. Today, many hospitals and medical facilities in the United States have reduced needle usage, using alternate routes through hands-free techniques. Other practices to reduce or eliminate risk of sharp injuries include disposing of syringes at the point of use in a safety box, no recapping of needles, using blunt suture needles and scalpel blades with rounded tips, passing sharp instruments in basins, using disposable gloves, etc.

3. Use Proper Devices to Reduce Risk of Musculoskeletal Injuries
Musculoskeletal injuries are common with medical professionals who have to lift immobile patients and/or transfer them between beds and wheelchairs. This puts those workers at risk for musculoskeletal disorders, which injure their bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, joints, cartilage, tendons, or blood vessels in the back, limbs, neck or head.

To protect yourself from musculoskeletal disorders and severe pains, use assistive devices such as slip sheets, slings, and electronic hoists whenever possible. If you don’t have access to these devices, at least use the correct body mechanics for reducing the risk of injury; for example, keep your feet apart and knees bent when lifting an immobile patient.

4. Train Employees to be Safe against Chemical Hazards
Some chemicals used in the health care industry may cause serious diseases such as cancer, reproductive disorders, neurological diseases, asthma, and developmental disorders. The likes of such hazardous chemicals includes mercury, phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan. Medical workers can be exposed to chemotherapeutic agents and medications, which are harmful and need to be handled properly.

According to OSHA, medical facilities need to train employees about how to handle hazardous substances safely. In addition, medical professionals must be provided access to safety data sheets with details of composition of each chemical used in the facility and their potential dangers.

Health care professionals must wear gloves and personal protective equipment while handling hazardous chemicals.

5. Provide Fire Safety Training
Although the number of fires in hospitals and hospices is declining each year, the National Fire Protection Association reports that there were 5,540 incidents in 2010. Operating rooms are at the highest risk because they contain flammable gas and other materials such as oxygen, methane, hydrogen, nitrous oxide, plastic masks, antiseptic agents, and cloth drapes.

Hospitals and medical facilities should minimize the fire risk by taking proper precautions, such as using water-soluble materials for covering flammable parts of the body; preventing the buildup of nitrous oxide and oxygen; using fire-retardant surgical drapes, and keeping electrocautery tools in proper places.

In case of fire, health care workers need to follow the concept of RACE:

  • Rescue anyone nearby
  • Activate the fire alarm
  • Contain the fire by closing doors and windows
  • Extinguish the fire using a fire extinguisher

Regular fire drills are also necessary to train employees.

While it is true that health care professionals face various safety hazards from the first time they step into a medical facility, there are ways to prevent or at least minimize the risks. The hospitals and the medical facilities must take responsibilities to make the workplace as safe as possible for the workers. The medical professionals also must follow the guidelines provided by the health care administration and be vigilant; after all, a hospital/medical facility is a constantly variable environment, and you never know what you will see next.

Rachel Oliver is a personal injury lawyer with in-depth knowledge of the niche. She follows her passion by keeping a tab on the latest happenings in her niche and moonlights as a writer. You can read her write-ups on several websites. Feel free to get in touch with her on Google+.

Posted by Rachel Oliver on May 27, 2015

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