Bloodborne Diseases in the Workplace – Keeping Employees Safe

In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that the healthcare industry alone has over five and a half million employees every year at risk for exposure to bloodborne diseases in their jobs. While these workers are at the highest risk for encountering bloodborne pathogens, general safety managers across other industries should not write off exposure and safety training as a non-issue. In most every job, there is some risk of bloodborne disease spreading, even if only in extreme situations. This blog post will help safety managers keep employees safe and conduct proper training with regards to bloodborne diseases.

What Are Bloodborne Diseases and How Are They Spread?

The most common types of bloodborne diseases are HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and C, etc. While the most common spread of these diseases amongst the general population comes from sexual contact, many other spreading risks present themselves in the workplace; pathogens can also be spread through…

  • Directly touching the bodily fluids, open wound, or body cavity of someone else who is infected.
  • Indirect spread through the touching of an object which someone else previously touched and left fluid upon.
  • The breathing in of droplets from someone infected (a sneeze, cough, etc.).

Exposure can come in many forms, especially in emergency situations. If someone is helping a co-worker who has been cut or injured, and is not using gloves or a face mask, they may be exposing themselves to any diseases their coworker carries. While most workplaces are required to keep emergency medical barriers on hand, emergency, spur of the moment situations can cloud judgment and leave workers open to unnecessary risks as they rush to help.

While the name implies that all diseases are “bloodborne,” they may in fact be carried by any number of bodily fluids. OSHA defines the following as fluids as capable of spreading bloodborne pathogens:

semen, vaginal secretions, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid, pleural fluid, pericardial fluid, peritoneal fluid, amniotic fluid, saliva in dental procedures, any body fluid that is visibly contaminated with blood, and all body fluids in situations where it is difficult or impossible to differentiate between body fluids; (2) Any unfixed tissue or organ (other than intact skin) from a human (living or dead); and (3) HIV-containing cell or tissue cultures, organ cultures, and HIV- or HBV-containing culture medium or other solutions; and blood, organs, or other tissues from experimental animals infected with HIV or HBV.

-OSHA – Bloodborne Pathogens

While diseases can be present in varying concentrations in certain fluids, they should all be treated the same way for the purposes of safety and risk assessment.

Who Is Most At Risk?

It is true that those most at risk are medical workers specifically those involved in emergency medical situations (in which open cuts and lacerations may increase presence of bodily fluids). Other healthcare workers, such as nurses, doctors, and caregivers are also at risk of being exposed to body fluid from patients. Workers in waste industries, specifically those dealing with medical or experimental waste are also at risk for coming into contact with broken or unsealed containers containing diseases-carrying fluids. Still at risk, though to a lesser degree, are athletes, physical laborers, and general employees of any company (namely ones in which multiple individuals share space).

How Do You Keep Safe?

Minimize Exposure Hazards in the Workplace: One of the easiest ways to make your workplace safer with regards to bloodborne diseases is to simply eliminate cutting hazards that might lead to first-aid emergencies involving bodily fluids (namely blood) in the first place. This should already be a consideration at any level of safety program, so it won’t be heard to double check that sharp edges and corners have been guarded, re-shaped, or blunted with padding, and that any cutting/slicing risk associated with machine operations or tools being used.

Keep Medical Barriers and Proper Emergency Equipment on Hand: In the same way you use appropriate gloves, eyewear, footwear, and clothing to protect against the risks associated with a job, proper medical PPE should be provided in known and easy to reach locations in case of emergencies. Face masks to filter particulates, latex gloves to form an airtight barrier between the skin and bodily fluids, and goggles to prevent contamination via the eyes should all be included.

Train Employees On Properly Protecting Themselves in Exposure Situations: If an exposure situation arises, employees need to be properly trained on how to protect themselves. While a first priority might appear to be helping an injured coworker, employees should make sure they’re protecting themselves first – much in the same way airplane safety presentations always drive home the point that parents should don their own oxygen masks before helping a child, it is important to not turn one incident or tragedy into two.

Part of this training involves making sure that all potentially exposed employees have at least basic first aid training, and no how to correctly use the contact barriers you’ve provided on site.

Furthermore, you should lead a training session dedicated specifically to the risks associated with bloodborne diseases. While you want to hit on the specifics of how your employees’ own work might put them at risk, and how they should avoid these risks, it is still a good idea to give them a general overview (like this Bloodborne Pathogen DVD or this First Aid Training DVD).

Training is generally useless if workers don’t see the importance behind it in the same way you do, making sure you relate to employees what made the topic so important to you in the first place can help make it more easy to relate to for them.

Tying It All Together

Ensuring you have an effective and comprehensive bloodborne disease training and safety program in place is relatively easy compared to many other facets of workplace safety. This is mainly because the risk factor for an event happening in most workplaces is relatively low, and there aren’t too many physical actions you need to take outside of simply educating employees.

Additional Resources