Constantly on their feet and multi-tasking, health care workers face a variety of potential injuries while on the job. Physicians, nurses and other health care staff handle dangerous equipment on a daily basis. One common hazard health care workers face is needlestick and sharps injuries. There is no better time than December to learn about this risk as December is International Sharps Injury Prevention Month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 600,00 to 800,000 needlestick and sharps injuries occur every year, but up to 88% of these injuries can be prevented by using safer devices and practices.

Medical settings involve fast-paced and high-stress situations, such as heavy workloads and emergency medical care. It is no surprise that accidental injuries in a medical setting can happen. Since injuries can strike even when properly following all procedures and rules, it is important for health care workers to understand needlestick and sharps injuries and know the best next steps.

What are needlestick and sharps injuries?

A needlestick injury occurs when a needle containing another person's blood or body fluid accidentally penetrates a person's skin according to the National Institutes of Health. Needlesticks are an occupational hazard for health care professionals, and typically occur when using, disassembling, recapping or disposing of used needles.

Sharps injuries occur in similar situations as needlestick injuries and have comparable risks, but skin-penetrating wounds from sharps can come from various sharp, medical instruments such as broken glass or scalpels.

Potential dangers of needlestick and sharp instrument injuries

Needlestick and sharp instrument injuries can have devastating consequences leading to long- term illness and even death. According to News Medical, over 20 blood-borne pathogens can be transmitted after a needlestick injury. Some of the most common pathogens passed to health care professionals from a needle include hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus and human immunodeficiency virus.

Not only are there potential physical outcomes after a needlestick injury, but there can be mental consequences as well. The waiting period between a needlestick injury and the results from a blood test can be psychologically damaging for medical personnel. Increased anxiety about the potential of contracting a blood-borne infection may cause some medical professionals to develop PTSD.

What to do if needlestick and sharps injuries occur

Post-injury management is critical and must be timely. Immediately after a needlestick and sharps injury occurs, the wound should be cleaned with water and antibacterial soap. Subsequently, a medical supervisor should be notified of the injury to ensure that the accident is documented and properly addressed.

Physical and mental evaluation of the affected health care worker is paramount. After a needlestick or sharp instrument injury occurs, medical attention must be sought. Various blood tests and prophylaxis for blood-borne pathogens are important to ensure the affected individual is properly taken care of. Psychological support should be offered to the worker who might be dealing with trauma from the event.

How to prevent needlestick and sharp instruments injuries

Various standards and preventative measures exist to ensure health care workers remain safe when handling dangerous medical equipment.

Established standards from OSHA outline guidelines to follow so that health care professionals remain safe in the workplace and avoid exposure to blood-borne pathogens. Some of these standards include utilizing appropriate personal protective equipment, avoiding reaching into containers containing contaminated sharps and properly labeling infectious materials.

The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was established to safeguard health care workers against blood-borne pathogens. This Act provides comprehensive instructions for employers and employees to take preventative actions against sharps injuries, as well as actions to take after exposure to blood-borne pathogens from a needlestick injury. The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act addresses things such as precautions, hepatitis B vaccination, recordkeeping, personal protective equipment and post-exposure follow-up.

Health care workers can take the following measures to prevent needlestick and sharps injuries:

  • Plan to handle needles and sharps safely
  • Properly dispose of needles and sharps
  • Follow safe injection practices and guidelines
  • Understand needlestick injury protocols
  • Use personal protective equipment such as face shields, gowns and gloves
  • Use devices with safety features and needless devices when possible

Preventing needlestick injuries requires proper procedures

Implementing safe procedures, using safety-engineered devices and teaching workers the measures needed to prevent needlestick and sharp instrument injuries are just a few steps health care organizations can take to ensure their employees remain safe. Employees should take their training seriously, properly handle needles and sharps and promptly notify supervisors of any injuries.

While International Sharps Injury Prevention Awareness Month occurs in December, preventative measures must be taken year-round. The substantial danger of needlestick and sharp instrument injuries should be acknowledged by both organizations and their personnel. These injuries are preventable and proper handling of needles and sharps can prevent a long-term illness or even death.