Friese: Health workers need protection against chemo medication
Every day, hundreds of nurses and other healthcare workers across Michigan treat patients with life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
This important work often involves preparing and giving chemotherapy drugs, which help control cancer but are quite hazardous for healthy people to handle.
This means with every dose of chemotherapy healthcare workers handle, the risks to their own health increase.
I have grappled with this issue firsthand. This fall, I received a call from a distraught family member whose cousin worked for years in a chemotherapy clinic that did not provide protection from daily drug exposure.
Persistent breathing ailments and chronic fatigue forced her to retire early. Her immunoglobulin levels, vital to fight off infections, were dangerously low.
Her experiences were not uncommon. For more than 30 years, studies have linked hazardous drug exposure to health workers’ medical problems.
From headaches and nausea to reproductive problems and rare cancers, multiple maladies have plagued those who handle dangerous drugs.
The reason is that chemotherapy drugs kill and/or damage cancer cells in sick people. But when those drugs come into contact with, say, a healthy nurse, the medication goes to work there too — killing or damaging otherwise healthy cells and tissue with each exposure over time.
Compounding this issue is the fact that chemotherapy drugs are administered in diverse settings, from hospitals to outpatient clinics and private physicians’ offices.
Although the problem sounds frightening and complex, the solution is surprisingly simple. Minimum safety standards for all front-line health care workers can assure consistent and efficient protection against the damaging effects of hazardous drugs.
Personal protective equipment like gowns, gloves, eye and respiratory protection, and safety cabinets provide a sound first step toward safety for workers who handle these dangerous drugs.
Currently, many nurses and workers do not use such basic tools to protect themselves. Consider the findings of our 2014 survey of cancer nurses:
■ Fewer than half of surveyed nurses routinely wore protective equipment as recommended.
■ 19 percent said protective equipment was not available in their workplaces.
■ 18 percent reported a chemotherapy drug spill during the previous six months.
■ And, most alarming of all, 12 percent said they hadn’t been trained on basic safety practices when it comes to hazardous drugs.
Senate Bill 237, introduced by state Sen. Jack Brandenburg, would require the adoption of nationally recognized standards for all nurses and technicians, regardless of where they practice. Clinical experts would meet to determine how best to protect Michigan’s healthcare workers.
The bill would assure all workers receive regular training on how to use the new guidelines and safety equipment. A new reporting system would enable us to learn important lessons from spills and share these insights with workers across the state.
S.B. 237 is a solid step forward on behalf of the nurses and healthcare workers who put their lives at risk daily.
Open, honest dialogue about this issue is needed, so that with every administration of chemotherapy drugs two lives can be protected — both the patient’s and the healthcare worker’s.
Unfortunately for my ailing colleague, there was nothing I could do to help. The sad truth is there are no known treatments for workers exposed to hazardous drugs. Prevention is the only recourse we have, which make legislative action so important.
Patients place their lives in the hands of healthcare workers every day.
We owe it to those on health care’s front lines to assure their health and safety. It is the least we can do to honor all these healthcare professionals do for us.
Christopher R. Friese has been a cancer nurse for 18 years and is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.