Communicating for high (hazard) compliance
Clear communication is key to preventing injuries in any hands-on workplace. Unfortunately, its importance gets overlooked all too often in fast-paced, high-volume physicians’ offices. Many injuries occur when physicians and medical office staff are overstretched, stressed, or fatigued. They don’t have the resources or communication standards in place to avoid or adeptly handle inadvertent errors.
It can be particularly dangerous for workers and patients alike when communication errors are made regarding hazardous chemicals. Whether for cleaning and disinfecting (e.g., ethylene oxide or phenolics) or for treating patients (e.g., antineoplastic drugs or aerosolized medications), mishandling chemicals can have serious consequences for both medical workers and patients. The CDC found that healthcare workers who have been exposed to hazardous chemicals have suffered effects ranging from skin disorders to adverse reproductive effects to some cancers. Exposure to hazardous drugs can occur when workers perform routine activities like creating aerosols, cleaning up spills, and touching contaminated surfaces when administering or disposing of hazardous drugs or patient waste.
Clear labeling and communication ensures those handling or encountering such hazards can take all appropriate precautions against potentially harmful exposure. In addition to a comprehensive medical surveillance program and routine evaluations of workers potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals, physicians can encourage open communication so office workers express concerns or suggest process improvements to keep staff and patients safe.
Physicians can create a stronger culture of safety and compliance by publicizing drug, chemical, and sharps safety information along with encouraging accurate incident reporting. Thorough training in safe handling and communication is just the beginning. Practices should offer training to keep everyone abreast of any new regulations. Regular training sessions should also serve as a reminder about the importance of maintaining a constant state of safety and compliance rather than retraining sessions “after the fact” following any incidents that compromise worker or patient safety.
Developing a culture of compliance will make physicians and other employees feel comfortable bringing any safety issues to light, such as inaccessible sharps disposal bins or drug diversion incidents. Workers should be fully aware of exposure control plans and help maintain an up-to-date accident and injury log, which can help track injury rates and guide necessary process improvements to prevent future incidents.
Safe and secure drug, chemical, and sharps handling and disposal shouldn’t be an afterthought. Despite working an environment where patients come first, primary care doctors, nurses, clinicians, and other staff must give their own safety the same level of attention they deliver to patients. Many thousands of safety incidents caused each year in physicians’ offices and clinics can be avoided by taking simple steps toward stricter OSHA compliance and more careful observance of safety and disposal recommendations.
Richard L. Best, PhD is Director of OSHA Compliance for Stericycle, Inc., where he contributes to the technical content of Stericycle’s OSHA training materials. He holds a Certificate in Industrial Hygiene Management from Columbia Southern University and is an OSHA Authorized Trainer. He is a member of the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology and the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention.