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Protecting health care workers from HIV infection

Written by Ankin Law Office

Health care workers in America face many risks on the job. Doctors and nurses may be exposed to stress, overwork, ergonomic hazards, threats of physical abuse and a wide range of dangerous pathogens. One of the most feared workplace pathogens is HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Exposure to HIV can change a health care worker’s life in an instant, as all workers’ comp lawyers are aware.

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protecting health care workers from HIV infographic

How are health care workers most often exposed to HIV?

Many cases of HIV infection on the job are caused by lapses in medical hygiene. When workers engage in the following practices, they are more likely to face exposure to the virus:

  • Improper use of latex safety gloves
  • Failure to use goggles in dangerous situations
  • Insufficient washing of hands
  • Incorrect disposal of needles or other sharp instruments
  • Incorrect labeling of disposal containers

The good news for health care workers is that almost all exposure to HIV is preventable.

Best practices for avoiding HIV exposure

Workers’ comp lawyers know that fighting the risk of transmission begins at the highest levels of a health care organization. No degree of HIV exposure on the job is safe or acceptable. All workers must be systematically trained in infection control. Every hospital, clinic, doctor’s office, dentist’s office and other health care facility must have a written policy in place for handling possible exposure. After contact with the virus has occurred, every hour counts in the battle for effective treatment. It is too late to begin negotiating a policy at that point.

Proper safety devices

Medical safety devices have evolved during the past three decades as researchers have learned more about the transmission of HIV. Workers have the right to use the most modern and up-to-date equipment. When needle containers are properly designed and installed, they can prevent nearly all needle sticks on the job. Scalpels and other sharp objects must be deposited in secure receptacles. Goggles and gloves must be manufactured to the highest possible standards of quality. Latex products can deteriorate in storage, especially if they are exposed to high temperatures or fluctuating levels of humidity. These protective devices should be treated like the life-saving tools they are.

What is the level of risk when a worker is exposed to HIV?

Exposure to HIV in the workplace is not an automatic death sentence. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the great majority of exposed employees are not infected with the virus. CDC statistics show that only 0.3 percent of workers exposed to HIV on the job, fewer than one out of 300, will go on to become infected. As preventative strategies become more powerful, this number continues to drop.

What can workers do after they are exposed?

If an employee suffers possible exposure to HIV on the job, it is crucial to notify the employer right away. U.S. labor law prohibits retaliation or intimidation because of workplace exposure to pathogens. The sooner a person’s employer knows about the risks, the sooner treatment can begin. Long delays may lead to an increased risk of infection.

Some workers are reluctant to report a possible exposure if they were breaking or neglecting safety rules when it happened. Even in these difficult cases, it is in the employee’s best interest to let the employer know about the accident as soon as possible.

Post-exposure prophylaxis

After exposure to blood or other body fluids containing HIV, workers may begin a regimen of post-exposure prophylaxis. This strategy, first developed by the CDC in 1990, is a powerful way to cut the risk of infection. The worker receives a series of drug treatments, usually lasting four weeks and involving two separate antiretroviral drugs. In especially risky cases, the employee may receive three drugs.

Post-exposure prophylaxis is not a gentle procedure. In many cases, it can be physically traumatic for the worker. In some situations, it may be an undesirable choice. When the risk posed by treatment outweighs a relatively small risk of HIV exposure, the worker and the medical care team may wish to monitor medical status and avoid taking the powerful cocktail of antiretroviral drugs. Some problematic situations include delayed reports of exposure, impaired resistance to drug toxicity or pregnancy in the affected worker. In these cases, prophylaxis may be too much for the body to handle. Pregnant health care workers should take especially careful measures to avoid the possibility of HIV infection on the job.

HIV transmission rates in the workplace remain low

CDC figures show that American health care professionals are winning the battle against workplace transmission of HIV. According to statistics collected by the CDC, a total of 57 health care workers have demonstrably been infected with HIV on the job since records were first kept during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. CDC statistics report no cases of job-related transmission since 1999.

During the past two decades, improved safety measures have reduced the risk of contracting HIV in the workplace. Better antiretroviral drugs have also increased the lifespan of employees who have contracted HIV on the job. Although these current trends are promising, health care workers still have the right to full protection from HIV and other deadly pathogens.

Health care professionals and their employers can work together to decrease the risk of infection. People who have been exposed to dangerous pathogens in the workplace may find it helpful to speak with workers’ comp lawyers about their options.