Health workers deserve better protection

Timothy Johnson

Remember the last time you went to the dentist? You probably got an X-ray as part of your exam. They put a huge lead blanket over you, and then they quickly move to the other side of the room as the X-ray is being taken.

That’s because it is well known that X-rays can be dangerous. In fact, we know they can cause cancer.

There are standards of practice X-Ray techs needs to follow, not just for the patient’s safety, but for the X-Ray techs safety as well. But these same common sense rules and regulations to promote safety are not the daily reality for chemotherapy nurses, chemotherapy pharmacy technicians, and other staff across Michigan when it comes to handling dangerous chemotherapy drugs.

A 2014 University of Michigan survey of cancer nurses revealed:

■About 12 percent of state health care works say they haven’t been trained in chemo drug safety practices. Based on what I have seen, I actually would guess this number is higher.

■Less than 50 percent of surveyed nurses routinely wear the protective equipment recommended by federal safety experts.

■Nearly 20 percent of nurses say there is no protective equipment in their offices.

■And 18 percent of chemo techs reported a spill, drop or leak of chemotherapy drugs during the prior six months.

These numbers are simply too high. They show a future filled with health challenges for these hard working Michiganders that will be costly, totally avoidable and undeserved.

This is not to say these technicians are purposely doing anything wrong. On the contrary, most are operating in the best ways they can with limited training and equipment. They work in a wide variety of clinical settings from physicians’ offices to hospitals, and consistent minimum safety standards have simply not been adopted and sufficient education is often not supplied to employees.

To address this, State Senator Jack Brandenburg (R-Harrison Twp.) has introduced legislation which can ensure all front line techs have consistent safety gear, training, and support. His bill is built upon a simple concept: Michigan should adopt nationally recognized standards for all nurses and technicians and ensure proper training.

In addition, the Snyder administration and its Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) have been working to address the need for consistent safety standards when it comes to the safe handling of hazardous chemotherapy drugs. The agency has been actively engaged with a number of health experts and oncology teams, working to understand the practical and policy implications of developing new safety standards.

The department’s work is crucial. Too many Michigan health techs are experiencing the dangerous side effects of chemotherapy exposure. These effects can be infertility, fetal abnormalities, spontaneous miscarriages, premature labor, low birth-weight, physical symptoms like headaches, breathing trouble, nausea, dizziness, nasal sores and—perhaps most ironically of all—rare deadly cancers have been known to occur in health care workers who don’t take proper safety precautions when handling chemo drugs.

Clearly, some state leaders share a strong urge to remedy this difficult public health challenge. It’s time to act to protect those who give of their time to protect us.

Timothy Johnson is president of the Lansing Chapter of the Oncology Nursing Society.