Faster Than the Eye Can Follow
Faster Than the Eye Can Follow

Pete began his shift in the hematology department. He liked to use the counter-mounted safety shield when opening specimens because he did not like to wear goggles over his eyeglasses. When it was time to read differential slides, he knew he could not look into the microscope with his glasses on, so he reached up with his gloved hands, grabbed his frames and set them on the dirty hematology workbench next to the scope.
OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard was promulgated (put into effect as law) in 1991. Its purpose was to prevent employee exposures to infectious organisms that may be present in blood or body fluids. For those employers covered, that meant creating an Exposure Control Plan, providing certain vaccinations, educating staff about exposure follow-up, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE).
A great deal has changed in healthcare since 1991, but the national standard remains unchanged. Changing an OSHA standard does not happen often, and it does not happen quickly. In many ways, for the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, that’s a good thing. The same protective measures must be in place in workplaces like laboratories, and despite the appearance of novel pathogens over the last 30 or so years, the basic required risk assessments and mitigation steps still apply.
Some people, however, complain that the standard doesn’t speak clearly enough about issues that have changed over time and that now need to be addressed. Do the regulations speak to personal electronic devices in the lab like smart phones, smart watches, and ear buds? There is mention of not having food or drink in the department, but what about chewing gum or candy? Sometimes you need to dig a bit deeper to discover that those issues are also addressed, even though some of those issues did not exist when the standard was written.
If you read the line, “Eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or lip balm, and handling contact lenses are prohibited in work areas where there is a reasonable likelihood of occupational exposure,” it seems very clear that OSHA is trying to prevent hand to face contact. While they did not cover every possible action, this likely includes gum chewing and touching cell phones which are then brought to the face (or worse, used at home by a toddler wanting to play). It can be argued that lab employees use telephones often on the job, and that gloved hands are near the face because of that.
So what other actions occur in your lab that could potentially create bloodborne pathogen exposure – actions that may occur every day or so quickly you don’t notice? Have you thought about wireless headsets or speaker phones in the lab? Do you look in cabinets and drawers for food or drink (especially during off-shifts)? Is gum chewing allowed in your lab (hint: if you’re in a CAP-accredited lab this is strictly forbidden)?
And what about poor Pete with his glasses? Has anyone trained him to remove his gloves, wash his hands, and place his spectacles on a clean surface before using the microscope? There might be other things you did not notice. If you have an employee with hearing aids, do they remove them to answer the phone? Do some staff wear gloves when opening the lab exit door and others use bare hands? Are computer keyboards used with and without gloves? Is PPE worn into lab rest rooms? These are all instances where a lab-acquired infection could begin, and they happen in a flash. Perform risk assessments to not only locate the risks, but to implement ways to mitigate them.
Magicians claim that their hands can move faster than the eye can see in order to work their tricks. Employees will perform “tricks” as well, but the outcomes may not be as entertaining. Providing safety education and observing people at work to see where other risks exist are important steps toward complying with the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. The regulations are not new, but with up-to-date lab policies and modern safety measures, they can be powerful tools to protect you and your staff from the new pathogenic threats headed our way- and the ones that have been here all along.

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