According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 5.6 million health care workers in the U.S. face exposure to bloodborne pathogens every day. Exposure to infectious materials is part of your job, but so is protecting yourself and others from the potential diseases pathogen exposure can bring.
What are bloodborne pathogens, and what are your responsibilities in keeping your workplace safe from infection? Keep reading for a quick introduction.
What Are Blood Borne Pathogens?
As health care workers, you know that pathogens are microorganisms that produce disease as humans. Pathogens are everywhere, and they have widespread effects on public health. For example, pathogens are behind the common cold and Covid-19.
Bloodborne pathogens are a type of pathogens carried in the blood of a human or animal. The microorganisms are typically viruses and bacteria that not only live in the blood but also spread through contact with infected blood.
In your role, you come into contact with human blood in many ways, which means you need protection from the potential infection posed by pathogens.
What Are the Most Common Bloodborne Diseases?
The most common bloodborne pathogens include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus (or HBV and HCV). Not only are these three of the most common bloodborne infections faced by health care workers, but they are also three of the most devastating.
While HIV, HBV, and HCV are the best known bloodborne pathogens, you should also know that there are more than 20 other pathogens transmitted through the blood. Some of the other common bloodborne pathogens include syphilis and brucellosis.
Some pathogens are bloodborne but aren’t classified this way. For example, malaria, West Nile virus, and Zika are all considered to be vector-borne diseases even though you find the virus in an infected person’s blood. Unlike syphilis or HIV, these aren’t spread from person to person unless you get a transfusion from an infected person.
Instead, these vector-borne pathogens predominantly spread through other means. For example, malaria spreads via an infected female Anopheles mosquito.
How Do Bloodborne Pathogens Spread?
Bloodborne pathogens can spread a variety of ways in a health care setting. The most common way they spread is when a health care worker is exposed to the blood of an infected patient, and the infected blood is able to enter your body either via mucosal exposure (through the eyes, nose, or mouth) or through a wound.
While personal protective equipment (PPE) usually protects blood from getting into your eyes, nose, or mouth, a breach of your PPE can be devastating. The most common breaches come from sharps injuries. Sharps injuries are a stab wound from a medical instrument, usually a needle or scalpel. Sharps injuries and sticks are always a risk to your health, but they can be particularly damaging when the sharp surface carries blood or bodily fluids. Nurses, in particular, are subject to injuries from disposable syringes very frequently: 53% of all syringe injuries impact nurses.
You don’t need to be working directly with patients to be at risk of a sharps injury. CDC data suggest that around 25% of these kinds of injuries occur “downstream,” such as among laundry workers or waste haulers.
With the proper PPE and safety procedures, you can contain bloodborne pathogens, and injuries and infections can be avoided.
How Can You Prevent the Transmission of Bloodborne Pathogens?
Preventing the transmission of bloodborne pathogens is part of health care workers’ jobs. Both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have rules that require it.
The first thing all health care workers must do is apply the appropriate mindset. You must treat every spill of blood or body fluids as if it is infectious. In practice, that means always following proper protocol, even if it seems inconvenient or if there are other pressing issues begging for your attention.
Second, all health care workers must wear the appropriate PPE at all times. You should be wearing gloves, goggles, masks, and capes where possible, and they should come from sterile stock. You should also check your PPE for defects or evidence of contamination and dispose of them as required. Remember: a popped glove or ill-fitting mask won’t protect you from bloodborne pathogens – or much else.
With your PPE secure, you need to ensure you contain, clean, and dispose of all trash and spills carefully. Any blood spill needs to be contained as soon as you spot it. The area then needs to be cleaned and disinfected.
Additionally, you should clean up all broken glass or sharps with tongs or a forceps, you should never touch them, even with your gloved hands. When you dispose of trash, you should do so in the labeled bags or containers with the correct biohazard labels and color codes.
After you remove your PPE, you need to scrub your hands and arms before putting new gloves on.
If exposed to bloodborne pathogens, you must protect yourself first and then treat the victim. You will then need to report the exposure to your supervisor, who will record it and help you through the exposure control plan procedures.
Protect Yourself and Others from Bloodborne Pathogens
You can’t avoid blood in health care, but you do have a responsibility to avoid bloodborne pathogens.
What are bloodborne pathogens? They’re viruses and bacteria that spread disease between people as a result of exposure to an infected person’s blood. While millions of workers are at risk of exposure, wearing PPE and following infectious disease protocols will help protect you and those you work with from contracting a disease.
Are you ready to learn more? Click here to start HIPAA Exams’ IACET accredited online Bloodborne Pathogens Training.