April 12, 2011

InvestigateWest’s reporting fuels two worker safety bills to be signed by governor Wednesday

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Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign two bills Wednesday  that will help protect healthcare workers from dangerous drug exposures, making Washington the first state in the country to have enforceable safe-handling standards.

The lawmaking has gotten the attention of the federal government as well, which this week issued a letter to healthcare workplaces, advising them to update their safety practices. The letter, signed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and The Joint Commission (the national hospital accreditation agency), highlighted the potential for serious adverse occupational health effects.

“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy.

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices, which showed that lack of workplace regulation was resulting in workplace contamination and worker exposures. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

SB 5594, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, requires the state to regulate chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs by creating a safe-handling standard for healthcare workplaces. “It is unacceptable that health-care workers risk exposure to deadly chemicals on a daily basis while on the job.  This measure could literally save lives by requiring the development of workplace safety standards for these professionals,” Kohl-Welles said.

Union officials and safety experts across the country have been watching the developments in Washington closely. Bill Borwegen, health and safety director for he Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C., which represents over 1 million healthcare workers, said Washington has earned a reputation for progressive workplace safety laws, and often paves the way for other states to follow.

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.

“We’re hoping this greases the skids at the federal level,” said McDiarmid, who along with other safety researchers has been pushing OSHA to be tougher on safety issues regarding handling of hazardous drugs.

In the short term, however, she said having The Joint Commission sign the letter to healthcare employers was a key step.

The Joint Commission is the national accrediting agency that inspects and certifies that hospitals are meeting strict levels of care and safety.

“Even an inference that the Joint Commission will be looking at this makes people sit up and take notice,” McDiarmid said.

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.

The passage of the laws has been a meaningful and emotional experience for

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

“I’m just ecstatic that what she went through didn’t go unnoticed,” Crump said.

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