Part I of a series

Needlestick prevention again in the spotlight

The recent passage of the Needlestick Safety Prevention Act has once again brought needlestick prevention into the spotlight, and for health care professionals, such media attention cannot come often enough. Although the general public’s awareness of the dangers of needlesticks was heightened some 20 years ago with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in North America, the recent successes with drug cocktails have lulled much of society into a false sense of security.

Some people may believe that even if they contract the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), medical science can prevent it from developing into full-blown AIDS. The reality, of course, is that HIV/AIDS still has no cure, and for that matter, neither do many of the diseases that can be contracted from a single, accidental needlestick. 

In October, the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously by voice vote, and on Nov. 6, President Clinton signed the act into law. Introduced by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-NC), chairman of the House Education and the Work-force Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, and Rep. Major Owens (D-NY), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, the bill requires hospitals to use safety needles that retract or blunt their points after usage to prevent injuries.

The legislation also requires nursing personnel to take part in selecting the safety devices to be purchased. Finally, the new law, expected to take effect in nine months, will require employers to maintain a sharps injury log.

The log will be required to contain, at a minimum, this information:

  • the type and brand of device involved in the incident;
  • the department or work area where the exposure incident occurred;
  • an explanation of how the incident occurred.

The information will be recorded and maintained in a way that will protect the confidentiality of the injured employees and will be a source of data for researchers to determine the relative effectiveness and safety of devices now on the market and those that may be developed in the future.

Each year, between 600,000 and 1 million health care workers are accidentally stuck by a needle or sharp. While many of these incidents give the health care professional nothing more than a serious scare, the number of those whose lives are irrevocably damaged cannot be understated. Lynda Arnold, RN, the founder of the National Campaign for Health Care Worker Safety, knows on a personal level just how devastating the consequences of an accidental needlestick can be. Arnold was infected with HIV from a 1992 incident. "I’m living proof that needlesticks do happen and their consequences last a lifetime," she says.

Today, Arnold and others who have become ill from an accidental needlestick tirelessly lobby the government to pass legislation such as the recently passed bill. Professional organizations, such as the American Nurses Association (ANA), also are committed to the cause of needlestick prevention. The ANA recommends that health care professionals interested in taking up the fight in their communities become educated about the dangers of accidental needlesticks and about the ways they can be prevented. In a satellite teleconference (sponsored by ANA and the University of Vermont) earlier this year, Mary Foley, MS, RN, president of the ANA, addressed the problem. "Nurses need to be informed about what equipment is out there and learn to differentiate the best devices."

[In January, Hospital Home Health puts a face to the dangers of accidental needlesticks through interviews with nurses who have contracted HIV and hepatitis C from on-the-job needle injuries. Information will be given on developing a needlestick prevention program and what can be done on a community level to promote needlestick prevention. For more information on needlesticks, contact: American Nurses Association, 600 Maryland Ave., S.W., Suite 100 W., Washington, DC 20024. Telephone: (202) 651-7000.]