March 3, 2011

Senate passes two health-care worker safety bills prompted by InvestigateWest reporting

Print More

Two bills sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices passed unanimously through the Washington State Senate this week.

SB 5594 requires the state to establish a workplace standard regulating the handling of chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs. The standards would create safety rules to protect workers who come in contact with hazardous drugs, including chemotherapy agents. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduced the bill, which if signed into law could set precedents for other states.

“We’re on the cusp of obtaining a law that would be the first in the country to regulate hazardous drugs,” said Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union in Washington D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers. Borwegen was part of National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health team that issued a strongly worded alert to healthcare workers about the need for extreme caution in handling the dangerous drugs.

InvestigateWest’s reporting showed that workplaces continue to be contaminated by such substances, resulting in potential exposures for healthcare workers who handle them. Exposure to these drugs can cause cancer, organ damage, reproductive effects and other health problems.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” said Ellie Menzies, Legislative Director for SEIU 1199 NW, which represents 22,000 healthcare workers in the state. “If we get this passed here, it will definitely help at the federal level.”

Worker safety advocates and occupational health experts have been trying for decades to get safety regulation to protect the millions of oncology nurses, pharmacists, technicians, janitors, and other service workers who are potentially exposed to unsafe drugs in the workplace.

The Washington State Nurses Association, and the United Staff Nurses Union, Local 141also supported the bill.

The second bill, SB 5149, introduced by Sen. Karen Keiser, would require that a cancer patient’s occupation be reported to the registry, and that if the patient is retired, the patient’s primary occupation before retirement be reported. That information, which is currently not routinely captured, will aid the state in tracking potential links between occupational exposures and cancer outcomes, something that is currently not possible.

“This is great news, and really a big step towards correcting this occupational cancer concern,” said Keiser, who also supported the hazard standard bill. “This puts Washington ahead of other states that have taken no action at all on this important issue.    I am convinced this will save lives in the future.”

Chelsea Crump, whose mother, Sue, mixed chemotherapy as a pharmacist for more than two decades before dying in 2009 of pancreatic cancer, testified before several Senate committees about her mother’s dying wishes to see better protections put in place to protect upcoming generations of workers.

Crump said testifying about her mother’s experiences was hard, but worth it.

“I got choked up,” she said. “I’m just ecstatic, though, that what she went through didn’t go unnoticed.”

Comments are closed.