NEW YORK NURSE: January/February 2012
Last evening, two nurses on my unit had to be taken to the ER. They had difficulty breathing, a reaction to the chemicals being used to clean the floor. Is there anything we can do to prevent this from happening again?
Chemical exposure at work is not well addressed in most facilities. A nationwide survey of more than 1,500 nurses showed that 32% of the respondents reported frequent exposure to a combination of chemicals — and more than half reported regular exposure! This is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the long-term effect of such exposure hasn’t been studied well at all.
The fact that two nurses ended up in the ER due to exposure on the job is a serious issue. Prevention should start with an investigation and a root cause analysis (RCA) of the incident.
The RCA can be initiated by your health and safety committee, brought to the labor/management committee, and followed up in your environment of care committee. Properly done, the RCA should provide some insight as to why the incident happened.
During the investigation, you should review the Material Safety Data sheets (MSDS), talk to the employees using the product, review training, and research if there is a safer alternative to the product being used. The investigation and RCA will tell if the product was being used properly, was the correct product for the task being done, if the product is hazardous, and if a safer alternative is available.
Once the investigation and root cause analysis are done, action on the findings should take place. Policies and training may have to be updated. If your facility doesn’t have a good chemical policy that covers selection, purchase, use, and disposal, then the situation is likely to occur again.
Just as a note: If two nurses were adversely affected, were there any patients affected, as well? If so, then patient safety is also at stake!
For more information, you may want to visit the Healthcare Without Harm website at: noharm.org, which has a section on safer cleaning chemicals used in hospital settings.
The NYSNA EGW Program receives many inquiries each month from members who have problems in their workplaces. If you have a question about labor relations at your facility, contact your NYSNA nursing representative. If you have a question you think should be featured in this column, send it to: RNs at Work, NYSNA, 120 Wall Street, 23rd Floor, New York, N.Y. 10005.