First Responders & The Risk Of Needlestick Injuries
- What Is A Needlestick Injury (NSI)?
- First Responders & Injection Drug Use
- First Responders & NSI Risks
- How To Respond To Needlestick Injuries
- How To Prevent Needlestick Injuries
First responders face a variety of job-related dangers.
For example, police officers and emergency medical services (EMS) workers often encounter needles, syringes, and other objects associated with injection drug use. These objects can cause injuries that lead to bloodborne diseases.
Here’s what you should know about these injuries and how to prevent them.
What Is A Needlestick Injury (NSI)?
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a needlestick injury (NSI) is an accidental, percutaneous (skin-penetrating) wound caused by a sharp that contains another person’s blood or other body fluids.
The term “sharp” refers to any object with a sharp point capable of causing puncture wounds, such as a needle, syringe, or lancet.
First Responders & Injection Drug Use
Law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency health care workers, and other first responders may experience sharp injuries when navigating areas where people have been injecting drugs.
For instance, police officers might accidentally stick themselves with contaminated needles while searching drug-related crime scenes.
Many people who inject drugs suffer from infectious diseases. That’s because they often share needles or other equipment for injecting drugs. Also, while intoxicated, they may engage in risky sexual behaviors that lead to infections.
First Responders & Needlestick Injury Risks
Sharps often contain bloodborne pathogens, which are viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms that can cause disease in humans.
The most common bloodborne pathogens include viruses that cause viral hepatitis, namely hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Some sharps also contain human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). An HIV infection can lead to AIDs. People with untreated HIV/AIDs may face serious complications, including chronic pneumonia, lymphoma, and cardiovascular disease.
Drug Residue & Overdose
In addition, along with viruses, some sharps contain residue from drugs, including meth, cocaine, heroin, and prescription opioids. This residue can cause serious health problems in first responders, including overdose.
Recently, Massachusetts lawmakers introduced a bill that would provide insurance coverage to first responders whose needlestick injuries led to illness, disability, or death.
The bill emerged largely in response to the rise in needlestick injuries affecting first responders in Mass and Cass. Mass and Cass is an area in Boston mostly populated by people experiencing addiction and homelessness.
How To Respond To Needlestick Injuries
If you or someone you know experiences a needlestick injury, clean the exposed area with soap and water right away. If you can’t access soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
For injuries that occur at work, immediately notify your supervisor. In most cases, you will be asked to complete an accident report form.
You should then head to the emergency room or visit your doctor. You will need to provide as much information about the injury as possible, including whether the sharp contained visible body fluids and how deeply it pierced your skin.
The doctor will also offer blood tests to identify HBV, HCV, or HIV. It may take a few weeks to get your results.
As you wait, you must take steps to reduce your risk of transmitting any infectious diseases. For example, you should avoid donating blood and having unprotected sex. Your doctor can tell you other ways to protect yourself and those around you.
Your doctor may also suggest post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP.
That means you will take a medication to prevent an HIV infection. This treatment is only effective if you start it within 72 hours of your needlestick exposure. Possible side effects include nausea, fatigue, headache, and upset stomach.
You will also need to attend a follow-up appointment to ensure the medication worked.
How To Prevent Needlestick Injuries
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have created safety guidelines for reducing needlestick injuries and occupational exposures to infectious diseases.
These guidelines include:
- only using needles when safer alternatives are unavailable
- never recapping used needles
- never bending or snapping used needles
- placing all used needles into a labeled, puncture-proof container
- getting a hepatitis B vaccination if your job frequently puts you in contact with blood or other body fluids
In addition, you should take advantage of any safety refresher courses offered by your employer.
Syringe Service Programs (SSPs)
You can also help protect yourself and other first responders by supporting community-focused efforts to reduce the prevalence of contaminated needles.
For example, many communities have syringe service programs (SSPs). These programs offer needle and syringe exchange, meaning they provide clean, unused needles and syringes to people who inject drugs.
Most SSPs also offer other harm reduction services.
Harm reduction is a public health approach that aims to reduce infectious diseases, overdoses, and other health risks in people who use drugs. Besides needle and syringe exchange, other harm reduction services include:
- distribution of fentanyl test strips
- distribution of naloxone (brand name Narcan), a medication that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose
- referrals to addiction treatment programs
If you or someone you love feels unable to stop misusing drugs, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our board-certified treatment providers offer medical detox, behavioral therapy, and other evidence-based health services to keep you or your loved one safe.
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