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OSHA requires employers to implement a bloodborne pathogen exposure control plan for the workplace that details protective measures for employees as well as reporting requirements. But is enough being done to ensure exposures aren�t leading to more infections? It�s the employer's responsibility to determine which job classifications or specific tasks and procedures involve occupational exposure and to encourage workers to report incidents.

Employees designated as first responders have a risk of exposure, but any worker electing to help an injured coworker could be exposed to blood and other potentially infectious materials (OPIMs). When employees fail to report exposure, or even potential exposure, to bloodborne pathogens at work, they don�t receive appropriate assessment and care. This can lead to extremely serious health consequences, including hospitalization.

As soon as safely possible after a potential exposure, employees should remove any potentially contaminated clothing and wash the affected area with soap and water. (NOTE: Application of antiseptics is not a substitute for washing.) If there is exposure to the eyes, nose, or mouth, flush them thoroughly with water, saline, or sterile irritants. If a sharps injury occurs, wash the exposed area with soap and water but don�t �milk� or squeeze the wound to avoid additional exposure. It�s important that employees understand there�s no medical evidence that using antiseptics like hydrogen peroxide will reduce the risk of transmission of any bloodborne pathogens.

Documenting exposures in a way that ensures confidentiality is vital. Without documentation, employers are unable to investigate and identify causes. Without understanding causes, remediations cannot be made to protect responders or prevent recurrence.

What prevents workers from reporting?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) completed a study that revealed several reasons employees are reluctant to report a bloodborne pathogen exposure. These include:

  • Being unsure of what constitutes a bloodborne pathogen, an exposure, or a potential exposure;
  • Worrying reporting may result in a negative performance review;
  • Knowing they weren�t wearing the proper personal protection equipment (PPE);
  • Fearing discipline, retaliation, or loss of their job;
  • Having concerns about confidentiality;
  • Feeling guilty that the exposure may have been their fault;
  • Believing that wiping blood or other body fluids off their clothes or skin prevents exposure; and
  • Wanting to avoid taking time away from work to report an exposure.

Protecting the workforce

Protecting workers is as simple as 1-2-3. Employers should ensure workers follow these guidelines:

  1. Avoid close, skin-to-skin contact and contact with sharp objects when caring for an injured person.
  2. Avoid contact with objects and materials that may contain blood or OPIMs.
  3. Practice effective personal hygiene and workplace sanitation by cleaning and disinfecting immediately after treating an injured person.

Employers can ensure worker protection by:

  • Training workers on the hazards of bloodborne pathogen exposures, the health consequences if left untreated, proper hygiene and sanitation protocols, and how to report exposures;
  • Ensuring workers are familiar with existing emergency protocols and the locations of emergency eyewash stations or showers and first aid stations;
  • Instituting and communicating a post-exposure evaluation process;
  • Assuring employees that reports will not adversely affect their employment or performance evaluations and that reports are handled confidentially;
  • Establishing a mandatory policy to immediately report all exposures or potential exposures;
  • Providing appropriate protective equipment and supplies, such as gloves, masks, sharps containers, and disinfection and hazardous material disposal supplies;
  • Implementing a system for reporting that is efficient to use and maintains confidentiality;
  • Issuing regular reminders to workers to report all exposures to blood and other body fluids; and
  • Cultivating a positive safety culture that promotes trust, care, and protection for everyone.

Keys to Remember

Employers must protect workers from the risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens. This includes protecting responders from illness or hospitalization resulting from unreported exposures. Protecting workers requires continual communication of hazards, proper training and supplies, assurance of accountability, and a positive safety culture.