Y2K problem can hit you, clients hard if unprepared

The year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem, also called the millennium bug, is known by most business and health care leaders as the glitch that could lead to devastating consequences on Jan. 1, 2000. While your hospital or corporate office may be addressing the problem on a large scale, occupational providers are being warned that they have special risks to deal with from the Y2K problem.

Because occupational health providers deal so much with systems, equipment, and procedures designed to ensure the safety of workers, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is warning that they should pay special attention to the ways in which the Y2K problem will affect safety systems. In a special warning issued recently, OSHA states "Serious safety and health problems are among the many concerns facing employers."

Other safety experts caution that it is not enough to depend on your hospital or corporate Y2K solutions. Employers will look to you for advice on how to protect their workers.

Computers may not recognize year 2000

The Y2K problem has been the bane of health care providers and business leaders since they first realized, years ago, the impact that it could have on medical equipment. Experts are particularly worried about the impact on critical equipment such as respirators and defibrillators, which could fail to operate properly if their internal computers do not recognize the year 2000. Many computers, and other equipment with internal computer chips, were designed only to recognize the last two digits of a year, assuming that the first two are 19. So when the date rolls over to 2000, the computers are susceptible to huge errors or complete shutdown.

That problem is being addressed with varying degrees of effectiveness by most health care providers and employers, but OSHA cautions that some safety systems could be overlooked. In particular, OSHA lists these areas of concern:

    - fire sprinklers;
    - alarms of all sorts;
    - lighting;
    - robots;
    - air monitoring devices;
    - hazard communication databases;
    - heating and air conditioning;
    - underground storage tank monitors;
    - security systems;
    - elevators;
    - generators.

Some problems with those systems are inevitable even if providers and employers are seriously addressing the problem right now, says William McDonough, MPAH, ARM, FASHRM, vice president and national health care risk management practice leader for Johnson & Higgins National Health Group in Boston. He speaks frequently on the Y2K problem. He and another expert addressed the potential implications at the recent meeting of the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management (ASHRM) in San Diego.

McDonough predicted there will be plenty of incidents in which ventilators shut off or infusion pumps work improperly, for example, and patients will be injured. Safety systems will fail as well, and in all types of work settings. Health care providers are concerned mostly about the danger to patients, but occupational health providers must look at the risks in a wide range of industries.

"There will be deaths, no doubt about it," he told the risk managers. "These are the things that should be keeping you awake at night."

Many of his words of caution are underscored by Tony Montagnolo, MS, vice president of technology planning for ECRI, the independent health care research institution in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Montagnolo confirms that the number of potential Y2K problems in any one facility is almost impossible to calculate because there are so many devices that have embedded computer chips that could be affected. Even if the device appears to be not much of a "computer," it may depend on an embedded chip that will be affected.

The first step is to inventory an employer’s equipment, or your own, to determine what items might be affected by the Y2K problem. Remember to include anything with an electrical cord as a potential Y2K victim because of embedded chips.

Your inventory should result in a high-, medium-, and low-risk assessment that you can use to prioritize testing and repairs. Montagnolo says high risks are "things that will kill you quick," like machinery that could activate in error. Medium risks are "things that will kill you slow," and low risks are "things that probably won’t kill you even if they malfunction." (For advice on helping clients with Y2K problems and testing computer equipment, see stories below and at right.)