SAFE NEEDLES: Congress Debating New OSHA Directive
In a "major step toward preventing potentially deadly needle injuries" among the nation's health care workers, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a directive -- the "first serious action taken by the federal government in years to reduce accidental needle sticks" -- to the its Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors that will allow them to sanction hospitals and health care facilities that do not provide safe-needle devices to their employees. The directive establishes a "minimum level of scrutiny" for hospitals and other facilities, and notifies employers about the availability of safe-needle devices and the penalties for non-compliance. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said, "We must do everything we can to protect workers who may be at risk of exposure to blood-borne diseases." She added that the directive "reminds employers that they must use readily available technology in their safety and health programs." The OSHA order does not specifically order facilities to provide safe-needle devices, but applies existing standards that require the "use of 'engineering controls' reduce needle sticks." Service Employees International Union president Andrew Stern notes that while the directive in an important step, "the OSHA language is vague and doesn't go far enough. The single best way to protect health care workers is by passing more state laws and ultimately a federal law."
Been There, Done That
Preempting the feds, the California state Legislature passed a measure last year requiring health facilities to use safe needles. The first-of-its-kind rule went into effect July 1; since then, 12 other states have adopted similar measures. Congress is debating a similar law -- based on the California measure -- that would mandate the use of safe needles in all public health and health care facilities. Safe needle advocates fearing challenges from hospital administrators, argue that the federal law is warranted. However, the American Hospital Association (AHA) opposes the legislation, calling it "unnecessary." AHA has sent a guide to its hospitals detailing a "step-by-step" training program on the use of safe needles. AHA spokesperson Rick Wade said, "We wanted OSHA to step in and use the power it already has. They're still sitting around in Washington talking about a law. This is better and sooner" (Carlsen, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/9).