Healthcare professionals face a number of occupational hazards in their workplace every day. Regardless if they are assigned to a hospital, community clinic, nursing homes, or an outpatient facility, nurses, lab technicians, doctors, and healthcare providers in general are at risk to the following:
Professionals who have chosen to build their career in the medical field are exposed to infectious and contagious diseases in their place of work. Contaminated needles and sharps may injure nurses and introduce pathogens such as Hepatitis B virus, Hepatitis C virus, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) — all of which are potentially lethal risks — to a health worker’s system. Hepatitis B, which can be present in the blood, feces, saliva, and semen, is the most prevalent work-related infectious disease in the United States. There are also infections that arise in specific types of workplaces. Nurses in hospitals are at risk for tuberculosis, which can come from undiagnosed patients coming to for consultation, while influenza, measles, mumps, and rubella may be contracted in different settings.
One of the first steps in hampering the spread of infections is the good use of hand washing techniques. Next is addressing the conditions that increase the risk of exposure to communicable diseases known to be prevalent in specific workplaces. Home health providers and their managers can come up with an annually updated and evaluated exposure control plan to minimize exposure to pathogens carried by blood. They can also minimize the use of syringes and opt for syringe and container designs with safety features like a protective cap or retractable needle.
Latex is an ever-present material in a health worker’s place of employment. This can be used with adhesive tapes, catheters, goggles, gloves, and a long list of other medical equipment and supplies used in hospitals and homes. However, constant exposure to this material can cause a reaction in the doctor or nurse’s skin called contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis causes the affected part of the skin, usually the hands, to become dry, itchy, and irritated. The condition usually appears 24 to 96 hours after first contact and may spread into other areas of the body or develop into oozing blisters. In addition, health workers may also develop latex allergy, a condition marked by allergic reactions and, sometimes, unexplained shock.
To avoid this condition, medical workers can use nonlatex gloves for activities that do not involve contact with infectious materials. They can also request the hospital to prefer gloves that do not contain latex but still offer sufficient protection against infectious substances. In addition, they can also undergo screening for latex allergy prior to working in the hospital.
Aside from contact dermatitis and latex allergy, health workers are exposed to various medicines and chemicals used for cleaning and janitorial purposes. Antineoplastic agents or cancer-treating drugs and ethylene oxide, a sterilizing agent, are associated with mutagenic, teratogenic, and carcinogenic effects and acute allergic reactions. Other substances found in hospitals, such as formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, also cause irritation. Hospital administrators and managers should inform their staff of the guidelines set by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with regards to the treatment and safe use of these chemicals.
Musculoskeletal injuries and disorders are characterized by pain in a part or region of the body for a specified duration of time. Back injury is the second most common cause of injuries across all occupations. Healthcare workers, especially nurses and home health providers, are at high risk to this condition due to activities such as lifting and moving patients without the assistance of another person. The work they do requires them to lift somewhere between 90 to 250 pounds on a daily basis, exceeding the safe limits for both men and women.
One good way to minimize the risk for musculoskeletal injuries is to make good use of ergonomics. Ergonomics is the study of the relation between workers and their working environment. Over the years, ergonomics has been used to design simple solutions to assist and promote the mobility of the patient without having to physically overburden the healthcare provider. The use of hoists and other devices has shown a significant decline in musculoskeletal injuries, especially in the home setting. Nurses and caregivers with musculoskeletal injuries can also ask the managers and administrators of the home or hospital they are in to provide ergonomic training or request for ergonomic assistive devices whenever applicable.
Physical risks to healthcare workers include exposure to radiation via X-ray and gamma rays, and lasers. Nurses and medical technicians have to keep radiation levels to a minimum to avoid the adverse effects of exposure, which include chronic conditions such as skin cancer and congenital effects to their offspring. The use of lasers during electrosurgical procedures, on the other hand, can pose an inhalation danger to surgeons, nurses, and other staff in the operating theater.
The hazards posed by these necessary medical technologies can be minimized by using protective clothing such as gowns, caps, masks, and eyewear. Staff present in an operation that requires the use of laser may also be provided with respirators. The health facility should also strictly adhere to current fire safety guidelines and perform proper maintenance work on machines that use laser. Nurses and doctors would benefit from appropriate trainings and visual reminders for radiation and laser safety.
Last but not the least is the burden of occupational stress in healthcare workers. NIOSH defines stress as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. This condition is brought about by many job stressors, such as work overload, inconvenient shifts, and poor interpersonal relationships, lack of support from the management, and the emotional strain of caring for ill and dying patients.
Occupational stress needs to be addressed by both the employee and management. The management should be ready to provide their workers with quality supervision and adequate job training. A regular meeting is also advised to discuss problems, solutions, and counseling support. Health workers, on the other hand, should develop effective coping strategies and perform relaxation exercises to lower their stress level.