Sharps injuries can be a major problem for nurses and other healthcare workers – not so much for the immediate physical injury that they cause but because on the risk of infection from transmittable viruses. But what is a ‘sharp’, and why are health care professionals at risk from them?
Sharps are medical tools including needles, scalpels, blades and styles that are inserted beneath a patient’s skin. Sharps injuries occur when a health care worker is accidentally or inadvertently cut, pricked or pierced by one of these objects.
It is particularly a problem within the healthcare sector as workers typically care for patients with serious viruses and infections, and these can be transmitted through pathogens that might be present on the sharp. The use of sharps is unavoidable in medical care, so it is impossible to eliminate the risk from them entirely.
Unfortunately, there is a range of different ways that healthcare workers can suffer these injuries but some of the most common include incidents when using a needle in a patient, disposing of sharps after they have been used and recapping needles.
The dangers of sharps injuries
The immediate physical injury inflicted by a sharp is usually not the problem. Instead, the issue is that healthcare professionals are often exposed to serious conditions including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to working with contaminated needles and sharps.
It is known that the risk of contracting HIV from sharps is not high but it far more likely in the case of hepatitis B and C. The risk is increased by the fact that there is no immunisation available for HIV or hepatitis C, and no post-exposure prophylactic for hepatitis C.
How can sharps injuries be prevented?
With the lack of immunisation or prophylaxis available for some viruses, the only way to avoid infection is to prevent the injury in the first place. There are plenty of ways that can be used to ensure sharps injuries are kept to a minimum.
All unnecessary injections should be avoided to reduce that amount of contact nurses and other healthcare workers have with needles. While it’s true that needle recapping should be eliminated as it is no longer necessary, it’s also important that sharps waste should be disposed of immediately and safely within watertight and puncture proof containers.
If possible, safer sharps should be used including retractable or sheathed needles. It’s also true that healthcare professionals should be provided with protection equipment including gloves and masks, and should be fully trained on ways to avoid transmission of viruses.
What to do in the event of a sharp-related injury
If you suffer an injury from a sharp you should take immediate steps to minimise the risk of infection. Firstly it’s important you for you encourage the wound to bleed a little, holding it under running water. You should wash the wound with running water and soap, but you should avoid scrubbing it as this could make the injury worse. It should be noted that you must not suck the wound. After it has been allowed to bleed and you have washed it you should dry the area and apply a plaster.
Next, you need to seek further appropriate medical treatment. This could involve the use of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). For example, PEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection among workers who have suffered injury from a sharp.
Should your employer have done more to protect you?
Both you and your employer have a duty to assess the risk from sharps injuries, choose appropriate methods of minimising those risks and have accident reporting and follow-up care in place.
It is clear, however, that sharps injuries are correlated with having adequate resources. It has been shown that nurses based on units with low staff numbers are more at risk of sharps injuries than nurses incorrectly staffed units. If you find yourself in a position where you feel that understaffing was a factor in your sharps injury, you may be entitled to compensation* from your employer.
* In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.
Mike James is an independent legal blogger. He has been working with McCarthy & Co, a specialist personal injury solicitor based in Cork, Ireland, who have provided advice and guidance on the legal regulation aspects of the above article.