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Are Sharps Injuries a Thing of the Past?

by Bruce E. Cunha RN, MS, COHN-S

The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was signed into law on Nov. 6, 2000, and took effect the following year. It was designed to improve protection from occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens from accidental sharps injuries in healthcare and other occupational settings. It laid out in greater detail OSHA’s requirement for employers to “identify, evaluate, and implement safer medical devices.”

The Act also mandated additional requirements for maintaining a sharps injury log and for non-managerial healthcare workers to be more involved in evaluating and choosing devices. It was a significant step forward. Yet even now, 13 years after the act became a reality, sharps injuries have not been completely eliminated. It’s been said that every year, healthcare workers experience between 600,000 and 800,000 exposures to blood. (United States Department of Labor-Occupational Safety and Health Administration [USDOL-OSHA], 2001).

As a surveyor for AAAHC, (AAAHC devotes a core chapter to infection prevention and control and safety in its Accreditation Handbook), and as a Manager of Employee Health and Safety, I am particularly concerned with this area of employee wellbeing. So whether your organization is accredited or not, I offer the following guidelines to help you protect the safety of your staff.

Tips for complying with the OSHA bloodborne pathogens standard:

  • Assure your bloodborne pathogen exposure control plan is reviewed and updated annually.
  • Annually assess any non-safety sharps devices to see if a newer, safety sharps device exists to replace it.
  • Make sure the update includes an evaluation by users of any technology that is safer.
  • Check that all employees with the potential for blood exposure have been offered hepatitis B vaccine if they have not previously been vaccinated or do not have documentation of a positive hepatitis B titer.
  • If you vaccinate an employee for hepatitis B, document that a follow up titer of immunity has been done.

Here are some criteria that you can use in evaluating your facility:

  • Are there any non-safety hypodermic needles or IV devices being used for patient care?
  • Have items like safety scalpel systems been evaluated, and where possible, implemented?
  • Are blunted suture needles available and used in appropriate surgical applications?
  • Are sharps containers located so they are easily accessible and not overfilled?
  • Are safety devices activated after use?
  • When recapping of a sharps is needed, is it done in a way that reduces/eliminates the potential for exposure?

The needlestick law was a landmark achievement for healthcare workers; and current data suggest that improvements in the design and distribution of equipment are making a positive impact on the incidence of needlesticks. But it’s up to all of us to make sure that the law is faithfully implemented and that we remain vigilant until sharps injuries are truly a thing of the past.

About the Author

Mr. Cunha is a Registered Nurse, certified as an Occupational Health Nurse, with a Masters Degree in Risk Control. He has 35 years experience in Occupational Health Nursing and is currently the Manager of Health and Safety for a large Clinical System. Mr. Cunha is an accreditation surveyor for AAAHC.

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