Union calls for action over needlestick injuries

The UK’s largest union is calling on the government to act swiftly to cut the number of needlestick injuries that occur in the UK every year.

Unison is demanding a rapid introduction of safer needles available to health workers to reduce figures that, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), currently stand at 85,000 sharps injuries across the NHS in the UK annually.

Of these, needlestick injuries are thought to amount to more than 56,000 in the UK – and some of these will be in the dental surgery.

Unison head of health, Christina McAnea, said: ‘An EU Directive in 2009 set May 2013 as the deadline for the introduction of safer needles across the European union. But why wait till then to stop the misery of needlestick injuries? It is about time the government stopped dragging its heels and introduced safer needles across the NHS now.

She added: ‘Deaths are fortunately rare, but many thousands of workers are left terrified that they may have contracted a serious infection from dirty needles such as hepatitis or HIV. In addition the mental and actual cost of treating these injuries to the NHS is huge.

‘Each of the 85,000 sharps injuries in the UK leads to time lost while workers get treatment or take time off to recover. It leads to expensive treatments and increased legal costs, as well as untold distress to victims and their families.’

In May 2010, the European Union (EU) issued a Directive aimed at preventing injuries and blood-borne infections to hospital and healthcare workers from sharp instruments such as needles. Member states, including the UK, have until May 2013 to ensure that the provisions of the Directive are implemented into national legislation.

The HSE is currently identifying any gaps in UK legislation, codes of practice and guidelines, with key stakeholders have been consulted for their views. A formal HSE consultation on implementation of the Directive will take place later this year.

The EU Directive says healthcare workers exposure to risks ‘must be eliminated’.  There must be safe procedures for using and disposing of sharps and contaminated waste. The practice of re-sheathing needles should be banned with immediate effect. Policies to prevent such injuries should also be introduced. Vaccination must be offered free of charge to all workers and students delivering healthcare.

Dental practices with five or more staff need to have a written health and safety policy. This should give details of who is responsible and what safety systems are in place. It should include details of policies on the disposals of sharps and re-sheathing (or not) of needles.

The Department of Health’s guidance HTM 01-05 says practices must minimise the risk of blood-borne virus transmission, with particular attention to the possibility of sharps injuries. It also says that a record of all sharps injuries must be kept and that a sharps box for their disposal must be kept.

Although the directive comes into force next May, it is not clear whether dental practices will have to change their procedures. HTM01-05 may be revised to take into account any HSE requirements.

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