Experts offer advice on reducing latex risk

A hospital hires a worker who reports no known latex allergy. Yet within a year, that employee complains of rash and other symptoms that grow progressively worse. Could anything have been done to prevent that occurrence?

While some health care workers will undoubtedly develop allergic reactions as long as any latex products remain in the hospital, many cases of sensitization can be avoided, latex experts say. Here are some steps employee health professionals can take to reduce the risk of latex allergy:

Establish a latex allergy task force to set hospitalwide policy on the use of latex products. Consider the needs of latex-allergic patients as well as health care workers.

Educate health care workers about the symptoms of latex allergy and how to minimize exposure. This is particularly important because worker preference influences the choice of glove type.

Limit latex gloves to activities that require protection against bloodborne pathogens.

Eliminate powdered gloves in favor of low-protein, powder-free versions.

Develop a latex-free crash cart in case of severe reactions to latex.

Provide a latex-safe environment for employees with sensitization. This means they should have access to nonlatex gloves, and powdered gloves should not be used by co-workers.

Evaluate cases of possible dermatitis as early as possible to provide treatment and corrective action.

Test workers who are at high risk for developing latex allergy. This would include people who have multiple allergic conditions; those with existing allergies to banana, kiwi, avocado, chestnut, tomato, and papaya; and those who have a history of hand dermatitis.

[Editor’s note: For guidelines on reducing the risk of latex allergy among health care workers, see OSHA Technical Information Bulletin: Potential for Allergy to Natural Rubber Latex Gloves and Other Natural Rubber Products (April 12, 1999) and NIOSH Alert: Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace (Publication 97-135). They are available on-line at www.osha.gov and www.cdc.gov/niosh/latexalt.html.]