This article appears in the April print issue of Surgical Products.

The numbers don’t lie.

The sharps injury rate in surgical settings has increased in the 14 years since the passage of the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act of 2000. While the rate of injury has dropped approximately 31.6 percent in non-surgical settings, it has increased about 6.5 percent in the operating room. This is true despite the widespread development of needlestick prevention devices for hospital facilities over the last several years. 

There are two key reasons why the increased incidence of sharps injuries in surgical settings is surprising: 

  • Surgeons, nurses, and other OR personnel are aware of the potential repercussions of improperly handling sharps
  • There are several products on the market designed to help address sharps safety in the OR

The list of needlestick prevention products includes well-known and commonly-used products such as blunt suture needles and safety scalpels. Others, such as transfer trays, neutral zones, and blade disarmers, aren’t employed in ORs as often, even though they are designed to be effective at keeping surgeons and staff safe.

“The transmission of bloodborne pathogens is a widely recognized issue in the healthcare industry today; however some facilities have not yet adopted the appropriate safety procedures and devices necessary to reduce the risk of sharps injuries,” says Patty Taylor, Vice President of Professional Education and Clinical Affairs, Ansell.

According to recent statistics, the most common location for sharps injuries to occur is in the OR.  Although sharps injuries occur anywhere in the healthcare environment, the highest proportion (33 percent) of hospital-based percutaneous injuries take place in a OR (25 percent) and procedure room (8 percent). The incidence of injury is much less common in inpatient areas such as medical/surgical units (21 percent) and ICUs (13 percent).

The top three sharps injuries that occur are from suture needles (43.4 percent), scalpel blades (17 percent) and syringes with needles (12 percent).

Despite these troubling statistics, Taylor says there are a number of reasons why the healthcare industry does not implement appropriate safety procedures or invest in useful sharps safety devices: 

  • Denial of occupational risk
  • Resistance to change
  • Continued access to traditional sharps
  • Lack of institutional support to drive a culture of safety
  • Absence of a strong, consistent education program focusing on factors associated with the transmission of bloodborne pathogens

However, it’s very, very easy to dismiss these reasons because avoiding sharps injuries is extremely beneficial to a hospital facility’s bottom line.

“Decreasing sharps injuries could have a significant financial benefit to a hospital,” says Holly Bengel, Senior Category & Market Manager, Aspen Surgical. “Costs of initial post exposure treatment for a sharps injury can vary widely and depend on the situations faced by injured workers.”

According to Bengel, published estimates of costs related to sharps injuries run anywhere from $71 to $5,000 per injury sustained and the yearly economic impact on occupational sharps injures is estimated at somewhere between $100.7 million to $405.9 million. When one considers the risk of acquiring a bloodborne pathogen like HIV, the risks and potential costs are even greater.

“The costs of treating someone who has acquired HIV can run upwards of $20,000 per year,” says Bengel.

Nevertheless, surgeons and other OR staff have not embraced devices designed to reduce the risk of sharps injuries and incorporated them into surgical environments. According to Bengel, this has quite a bit to do with the fact that it's difficult to convince healthcare professionals to change their practices and behaviors.

“Products that change the practices of the operating room staff have historically not been very well received,” she says. “Products that fit into the practices that are already established are more readily accepted by operating room staff. Many manufacturers are looking at ways to incorporate safety into their devices without disrupting established practices and taking into account industry feedback."

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