Back to Basics, Health and Wellness, Medical/Laboratories

Back to Basics: Preventing the Transmission of Bloodborne Pathogens

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we celebrate EHS Compliance Week by examining the dangers of bloodborne pathogens and how employers can help prevent their transmission in the workplace.

Bloodborne pathogens are a dangerous hazard that can affect employees in many different kinds of work environments. According to OSHA, the CDC estimates that 5.6 million healthcare workers and employees in related fields are at risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens through occupational exposure to blood or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM). The definition of blood includes human blood, human blood components, and products made from human blood. OPIM encompasses human body fluids, such as semen, vaginal secretions, cerebrospinal fluid, amniotic fluid, and saliva in dental procedures. OPIM also includes any unfixed tissue or organ from a human besides intact skin, and HIV-containing cell or tissue cultures.

Types of bloodborne pathogens

Bloodborne pathogens are defined by OSHA as infectious microorganisms present in blood that can cause disease in humans. Well-known bloodborne pathogens include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), and many others.

  • HIV: A virus that weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection, and if left untreated, can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). 
  • HBV: A pathogen that can cause hepatitis B, a vaccine-preventable liver infection that can be spread through blood and other body fluids from an infected person.
  • HCV: A virus that can cause hepatitis C, a liver infection that has no vaccine and is also spread through contact with blood, shared needles, or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.  

An employee can be exposed to all of these illnesses if they endure a needlestick injury or a cut from a contaminated sharp. In an emergency where one of these exposures occurs, workers should immediately wash the needlestick or cut with soap and water, flush splashes to the nose, mouth, or skin with water, irrigate eyes with clean water, saline, or sterile irrigants, report the incident to their supervisor, and immediately seek medical attention.

Exposure prevention

OSHA’s standard for bloodborne pathogens requires employers to establish a written exposure control plan to minimize exposure, including a list of the employees who have various levels of exposure and the tasks they are participating in that result in that exposure. Employers have to update that plan annually to reflect any personnel or procedure changes, and they must document input from employees that they receive and their efforts to move to safer devices and measures.

Employers must implement the use of universal precautions—engineering controls such as sharps disposal containers and self-sheathing needles—and work practice controls that change the way a task is performed to better avoid exposure. Additionally, employers must provide personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, gowns, eye protection, and masks, and make the hepatitis B vaccine available to all employees with occupational exposure to the virus, along with post-exposure evaluation.

Use signs and labels to communicate hazard areas, or red bags or containers. Warning labels must be put on containers of regulated waste, contaminated reusable sharps, contaminated laundry, refrigerators and freezers containing blood or OPIM, and other containers used to store, ship, or transport blood, OPIM, and contaminated equipment.

Provide information to employees, such as how to protect themselves while handling contaminated sharps. Implement regular, annual training for workers starting on their first assignment that covers information about bloodborne pathogens, methods used to control exposure, the hepatitis B vaccine, and post-exposure procedures. Lastly, employers must maintain worker medical and training records, and a sharps injury log.