February 16, 2012 — A federal law enacted to protect health care workers from being stuck by needles dramatically reduced the number of such injuries, decreasing the possibility for exposure to blood-borne pathogens, research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine has found.
The U.Va. researchers examined 10 years of injuries – more than 23,900 in total – from hospitals around the country. Injuries were on the rise before 2001, when the law took effect. Needlestick injuries then dropped by about 38 percent in 2001 and remained well below the previous levels through 2005, the last year evaluated.
While the researchers noted that other factors might have contributed to the decrease, U.Va. researcher Elayne Kornblatt Phillips called the effect of the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act "very significant."
"Health care workers are precious resources in this country and around the world," she said. "We keep reading in the news about the shortage of health care workers, especially nurses and physicians, and those are the two groups that are most often injured by sharp devices."
Phillips, director of research at U.Va.'s International Healthcare Worker Safety Center, conducted the research along with Janine C. Jagger, the center's director, and Mark R. Conaway, director of the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the U.Va. School of Medicine.
Their findings appear in a letter in the Feb. 16 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act mandated revisions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's blood-borne pathogen standards, requiring employers to provide safer devices for at-risk employees, review exposure-control plans annually and maintain logs of all injuries by sharp items. It also gave frontline workers a greater role in selecting appropriate safety devices.
Because the significant decrease in needlesticks came only after the passage of the federal law, the findings underscore the importance of legislation that is well crafted and enforced, Phillips said.
"Even though there were OSHA regulations that intended to do the same thing, and devices on the market to do the same thing, we really didn't see it until the legislation was passed," she said.