Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nurses' Occupational Health

This week, Laura Wenger of Practice Greenhealth and The Healthier Hospitals Initiative stated on RN.FM Radio that nurses have the highest rate of occupational asthma in the United States. I was taken aback by this simple statement, and have been thinking about this statistic ever since.

According to an article published in The Lancet in 2007, nurses are twice as likely to experience occupational asthma when compared to the rest of the American population. That study is mentioned in a 2007 post on Medical News Today, detailing a Barcelona-based study suggesting that up to 25% of new asthma cases in developed countries may be occupational in nature.

Printers, nurses, cleaners, woodworkers and agricultural workers are all at great risk of occupational asthma, and the news that nurses are at greater risk than I have ever previously considered is certainly food for thought.

For healthcare workers, materials such as disinfectants, sterilizing agents, cleaning products, bleach, formaldehyde, chlorhexidine and other aerosolized and non-aerosolized agents are all present in the day-to-day working environment. Furniture, wall coverings and other fixtures off-gas formaldehyde and other chemicals, and healthcare workers are constantly exposed through their skin, respiratory tracts, and mucous membranes.

Nurses spend more time in the hospital than most other employees in the healthcare sector, and long hours on multiple days adds up to greater continued exposure and increased risk of environmental occupational injury.

Many nurses describe feeling the ill effects of cleaners, disinfectants, floor waxes, and other materials utilized widely in hospitals and other clinical settings, and the push to maintain environments that do not foster nosocomial infections and antibiotic-resistant bugs may have truly brought out "the big guns" in terms of environmental insult to workers.

In addition to cleaning chemicals and off-gassing furniture and fixtures, nurses and other employees are also exposed to flame retardants, PVC-based tubing and medical equipment.

The Healthier Hospital Initiative is working with hospitals to decrease the use of such hazardous materials while also helping healthcare facilities become more sustainable in terms of their energy use, waste production, food choices, and other related factors.

As I've said in the past, your health is your best insurance policy, and the irony of being exposed to hazardous materials while working in a "healing" environment is worth serious consideration.

Nurses need to stand up for their occupational health and safety. If you need support in this arena, The Healthier Hospitals Initiative and Health Care Without Harm are good places to begin. If you have a work situation that begs attention in this regard, please feel free to comment here and begin a discussion that is in the interest of us all.


Laura in IA said...

That is why I fear the need to go to the doctor or hospital. I have eliminated as much of this and fragrance, especially, from my personal environment. There are things going on with their health in addition to the obvious asthma.

Keith "Nurse Keith" Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC said...

Yes, the effects are widespread and beyond asthma. It's true. There are also neurological and other effects that are more difficult to identify, and most people would not necessarily connect their headache, nausea, confusion or brain fog with chemicals or fragrances.