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9th May 2012
Suffering a needlestick injury can be extremely distressing for anyone affected. Solicitors recently represented a hospital employee who was injured at work in this way and he received compensation.
Safety Procedures not Followed
The IP was emptying a clinical waste bin at his workplace. As he lifted out the bag he felt a sharp pain in his finger and realised that a needle inside the bag had penetrated his gloves and punctured his skin.
The needle should not have been put into the clinical waste bin, as there was a dedicated container for needles and other ‘sharps’ in accordance with health and safety regulations.
As a result of this accident at work the IP had to endure months of uncertainty about whether he may have contracted a blood-borne infection and had to have various tests. Understandably, he suffered psychological problems, stress and anxiety.
A personal injury claim was brought against his employer, as they failed to ensure that their staff followed correct procedures. They admitted liability for his injury and made an initial offer of damages but this was deemed inadequate and Court proceedings were begun. The defendants then made an increased offer and we were able to settle the case before it went to trial. The IP received £2,500 compensation.
Not very much, for a serious and distressing injury. That as far as we know the individual did not, in the event, develop an infection is a side issue when set against the immediate, and often long-lasting, stress and anxiety that can be caused.
Clearly a failure of process at the hospital, and sadly an all too common one. It may be one of your employee’s next.
What is particularly sad is the lack, as far as we are aware, of HSE intervention. Failure to put a needle into a sharps bin is surely sufficient to warrant regulatory action for a breach of Health & Safety legislation. Sadly, that hardly ever happens – I know of only 2 instances in about 18 years – and while HSE sit on their hands the key legal and financial driver for improvement in safety practice simply does not exist.
The current EU mandate for sharps safety devices may not improve matters. Those who now throw an unsheathed used needle into a waste sack are probably equally unlikely to bother to activate a needle safety device. Very little will change, and ancillary workers and waste handlers will continue to be placed at risk.
It is not an easy situation, where contractors and others as well as NHS staff each report to different occupational health or HR services and the compilation of central incident statistics is impossible. Only when a further review of RIDDOR, to include sharps injury for mandatory reporting, will these data become known. That will create a datum against which to measure performance and improvement interventions and provide the tools for regulators, in this case HSE, to stir into action and properly investigate these unforgivable incidents.
HSE expect that indeed there should be reporting of incidents; “The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR) require that puncture wounds from contaminated needles should be reported as dangerous occurrences to the relevant enforcing authority (HSE or your local authority)” http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/waste19.pdf
That could not be more clear, but the practice is hugely different. Most employers work hard to avoid any RIDDOR report and maintain a low profile with an accident statistics rate that is, or at least seems to be, better that average. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
“Contaminated needles” is the contentious phrase. Since it is unlikely that in the waste industries anyone could possibly know, at least without the benefit of immediate laboratory testing, whether the needle was contaminated reporting rates are at zero.
In hospital practice, the situation is slightly different but even so reporting is almost unknown. If it were otherwise, HSE might be inundated so there is reason to expect that maintaining the status quo is the preferred option.
And lastly, back to the word “contaminated”. Contaminated with what? With HIV? Hep B? Hep C? Or perhaps with any one of the many other micro-organisms that might be transmitted by sharps injury?
Clearly, the present situation is far from satisfactory.
HSE guidance is muddled and open to far to much flexibility in interpretation. The short guide for the waste industries Waste19 talks of puncture wounds from contaminated needles and alludes to an obligation to RIDDOR reporting. But the more substantive and recently updated 2012 document to which the reader is directed, “A guide to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995“ speaks of:
(ii) for example, accidental self-inoculation (eg by the needle of a syringe or other contaminated sharp item), animal bite or laceration
This appears under a superior heading:
c) acute illness (exposure to a biological agent or its toxins or infected material):
Again, by playing with words many feel able to avoid reporting because the individual is not, at the time of injury, suffering from any acute illness but instead just a sore thumb from a recent needlestick!
HSE need to sort this out.