Healthcare workers perform life-saving actions on a daily basis, but one act in particular may endanger their own lives: working with hazardous drugs. When healthcare staff handle drugs that have been proven to cause negative health effects in animals or humans, they may be putting their health at risk. Employers may want to require workers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), or establish engineering and administrative controls to prevent workers from being exposed to hazardous drugs.
Healthcare staff who may be exposed to these substances include nurses, physicians and physician assistants as well as operating room personnel, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes the severity of the health effects from handling with hazardous drugs depend on the amount of the exposure and the substance’s toxicity. When healthcare workers come in contact with hazardous drugs, they may experience acute or chronic health problems like skin rashes, reproductive issues and even cancer.
Importance of PPE in protecting healthcare workers
Exposure to hazardous drugs may happen by workers inhaling or having skin contact with the harmful substance. Workers may come into contact with hazardous drugs when they administer them via intramuscular, subcutaneous, or intravenous routes, according to NIOSH. The hazardous drugs also may mix with the air surrounding containers filled with the drugs, such as syringes.
“Workers may be exposed to hazardous drugs when they create aerosols, generate dust, clean up spills, or touch contaminated surfaces when compounding, administering, or disposing of hazardous drugs or patient waste,” according to NIOSH.
NIOSH recommends employers provide workers with PPE, such as protective clothing and respirators, to help protect them from exposure to these harmful substances. Employers may want to remind workers to wear PPE when they perform the above functions or are expected to touch contaminated surfaces.
Workers may want to wear respirators and gloves to add an extra layer of protection. Respirators may help prevent workers from inhaling fumes given off by the drugs, and the gloves could guard against direct contact with these harmful substances.
Employers also may consider implementing a medical surveillance program to collect data on worker health and help prevent future exposure to hazardous drugs in medical facilities, according to NIOSH. A medical surveillance program includes gathering data on workers’ medical and occupational histories, physical examinations, laboratory studies and biological monitoring. Through this comprehensive program, employers have a greater chance of minimizing the health effects of hazardous drugs.