Canadian Provinces Urged to Mandate the Use of Safe Needles

Pointing to the risk of workers contracting AIDS and other deadly viruses from needlestick injuries, a coalition of unions has banded together to implore the Canadian provincial governments of Ontario and British Columbia to make it mandatory for health care workers to use safety-engineered medical devices (SEDs).

The unions say that using SEDs would make the provinces' health care systems safer and more efficient for their workers.

"[Ontario] spends over $64 million a year on testing and treatment of workers injured by needlesticks in acute care alone," said Sharleen Stewart, Canadian international vice president for the Service Employees International Union. "The government could eliminate up to 90 percent of these costs by replacing conventional needles with the superior, safety-engineered versions."

The union estimates there are 70,000 needlestick injuries each year in Canada. These injuries -- which occur when a worker's skin is punctured by a used needle or medical sharps device -- can transmit more than 33 bloodborne diseases, including AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and West Nile Virus. Stewart says more than 33,000 of those injuries occur in Ontario.

"We refuse to sit idly by as our members are being injured, are ill and are dying," Stewart said.

Even though the technology to protect workers exists, according to Ontario Federation of Labour President Wayne Samuelson, only 10 to 20 percent of needles and medical sharps devices currently used in Ontario are safety-engineered.

"We are here to say that this is completely unacceptable and inexcusable," Samuelson said. "The technology exists. The regulation works. The government has an obligation to properly protect Ontario workers."

Switch Would Save $8 Million in B.C.

More than 6,800 needlestick injuries occur every year in acute care in British Columbia, costing the government $13.6 million to test and treat injured workers, according to Service Employees International Union Local 244 President Mike McDonald. He says conversion to SEDs in acute care would cost $3.6 million, equating to an annual net savings of more than $8 million.

"They can reallocate the savings to priority areas like reducing wait lists or purchasing MRI machines," McDonald says, noting that the figures do not include the cost of testing and treating all other workers and citizens in the province who are stuck by used needles found in public spaces.

B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union Local 18 Staff Representative Dan Rowe says the threat of used needles extends well beyond the realm of health care.

"Our members encounter used needles in ferry washrooms and other public spaces, where they pose a threat to anyone who may come into contact with them," Rowe said. "We can save lives if we eliminate the threat that used needles pose, both to our members and the public, through the use of engineering controls."

Likewise, Leah Casselman, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said her union's 40,000 members "encounter used needles when working at our casinos, in group homes, in corrections and alongside our province's highways."

Past Successes Have Emboldened Union

The Service Employees International Union says it will be building on its success in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where it lobbied both provinces to commit to safety-engineered devices in late 2004.

The union also points to its neighbor to the south as a good example of the importance of SEDs.

The union's Stewart says that the United States, following the enactment of the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act in 2001, witnessed a dramatic reduction in injuries.

"In the first year of implementation alone, and with full compliance not yet achieved, needlestick injuries were reduced by an astounding 51 percent," Stewart said, citing a 2003 Exposure Prevention Information Network study from the International Healthcare Worker Safety Center at the University of Virginia.

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