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EU legislation will mean safer needles

UK hospitals will have to introduce self-resheathing needles under European Union health and safety legislation on reducing needlestick injuries.

A landmark agreement on the safer use of needles to prevent injury among hospital staff was set to be announced on 9 June at the European Public Services Unions annual congress in Brussels, Belgium.

The agreement has been made between the European Public Services Unions – which represents the majority of health trade unions across the EU including Unison, the RCN and the RCM – and Hospeem which represents hospitals and healthcare employers across Europe, including the NHS Confederation.

It is expected to become EU health and safety legislation before the end of the year. As a result, hospitals across the EU will soon be legally obliged to take action to prevent needlestick injuries to their staff.

This will mean all hospitals in member states will have to carry out risk assessments on needlestick injuries and introduce safer equipment, including needleless IV connectors, self-resheathing needles and blunted surgical needles.

Karen Jennings, head of health at Unison and president of the EPSU’s health committee, said that it was ‘quite something’ to have drawn up such an agreement, the first of its kind.

‘The objective of the framework agreement is to prevent the incidence of injuries with contaminated sharps, protect the workers at risk and establish appropriate response and follow-up policies in cases where those injuries occur,’ she said.

Ms Jennings said the agreement acknowledged that it was possible to prevent many of the injuries caused by needles and other sharp objects ‘by adopting an integrated approach in the area of risk assessment, risk prevention, training and awareness raising’. 

Unison repeated calls for safer needles to be made compulsory in the NHS last February, following the death of Juliet Young, a nurse who contracted HIV from a needlestick injury while working at the Maudsley Mental Health Hospital in London.

At the time, Ms Jennings said: ‘Safer needles are available and Juliet’s death begs the question – how many more people have to die before NHS Employers make safer needles compulsory throughout the NHS?

‘We need accurate data to assess the extent of the needlestick problem but estimates put the number of injuries as high as 100,000 every year,’ she added.

According to the RCN’s Needlestick injury in 2008 survey, nearly one-half of the 4,700 respondents had been stuck by a needle or sharp at some point in their career and 10% had sustained an injury in the past year.

However, 28% of nurses said they had never received advice from their employer about what to do after being injured and only 15% of respondents said they were offered prophylactic treatment after having been stuck or cut.

Another report, published by the Health Protection Agency just after the RCN survey results, suggested doctors and dentists were reporting more needlestick and sharps injuries than nurses for the first time.

The HPA’s report – Eye of the Needle – showed that during 2006 and 2007 doctors and dentists reported 46% of work-related exposures to bloodborne viruses via needlestick and sharps injuries, compared to 44% among nurses.

Overall there were 914 incidents of healthcare workers being put at risk over the two year period. Three healthcare workers were reported as having acquired hepatitis C infection as a result of their injury.

Following the successful breakthrough on needlesticks, Nursing Times understands that the EPSU are now working on drawing up other similar agreements on good practice in employee skill-mix, the ageing workforce and recruitment and retention in healthcare organisations across Europe.

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