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MPs pricked into action on dangerous cuts

01 Jul 2013


The work safety watchdog will review arrangements nationwide to protect doctors, nurses and other health workers from injuries caused by needles, scalpels or other sharp objects under legislation proposed in Federal Parliament.

General practitioner and retiring Liberal MP Dr Mal Washer has received bipartisan support for a Private Members Bill calling for national action to reduce the incidence of needle-stick and scalpel injuries among health workers.

Under the proposal, Safe Work Australia will be directed to review Federal, State and Territory rules and guidelines regarding the protection of health workers from needle-stick and sharps injuries.

Dr Washer said it was likely that there were more than 30,000 injuries to health workers caused by needles, scalpels and other sharp medical equipment each year, exposing thousands of workers to the risk of serious infection and causing great psychological trauma and significant workplace costs.

The West Australian MP told Parliament last week that doctors, nurses and other health workers were at risk of exposure to three serious blood-borne viruses including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV during the course of their daily work, as well as a host of other pathogens including diphtheria, herpes, tuberculosis, syphilis and malaria.

Dr Washer said there were 18,500 instances of worker exposure to blood and body substances in hospitals in 2005, and research had shown that between 30 and 80 per cent of sharps injuries were not reported, making likely exposure much higher.

But he said that training health staff in how to work safely, combined with the use of safety-engineered medical devices, radically cut rates of stick and sharps injuries by up to 90 per cent or more.

Dr Washer said it was time for action.

“Australia has yet to adopt a nationally consistent approach to the use of safety-engineered medical devices in health care settings, through either prescriptive legislation or policy, despite the high rates of needle-stick, scalpel cuts and other sharps injuries,” he told Parliament. “The development of a staff safety culture is a prerequisite for developing a strong patient safety culture. The most direct route to preventing percutaneous injuries is to make injurious devices safer to handle.”

Government Whip Graeme Perrett said the Government backed Dr Washer’s motion and had proposed amendments – accepted by the Liberal MP – to “make sure that State and Territory representatives are actively involved in the process of reviewing the existing code of practice for needle-stick injuries, so that we address all of the health and safety risks of biohazards broadly”.

Chair of the Alliance for Sharps Safety and Needle-stick Prevention in Health Care Anne Trimmer said it was “about time” the issue was considered by Parliament.

“Overseas, this has long been recognised as a foreseeable and preventable hazard for health care workers,” Ms Trimmer said. “The USA and Europe have had legislation in place to address the issue for…years.”

According to research by the Medical Technology Association of Australia, introducing safety-engineered medical devices into health workplaces could, combined with guidelines and training, reduce injuries by more than 90 per cent, and save hospitals around $18.6 million a year.

Ms Trimmer said Australia lagged behind many parts of Canada, Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom, where the use of safety-engineered medical devices was mandatory.

She said that, under national workplace safety laws, employers were obliged to eliminate workplace hazards or, where this was not practicable, to minimise them as much as possible.

Ms Trimmer said that, in keeping with this, regulations should require the use of safety-engineered medical devices, accompanied by appropriate training and guidelines.

She said that, in addition, there should be systems put in place to report incidents of sharps or needle-stick injuries, and arrangements such as hot lines to encourage injured workers to report incidents and receive advice and support.


Published: 01 Jul 2013