Read warning labels about opioids and avoid taking them before driving.

Proper Needlestick Hand Protection Amidst the Opioid Crisis

Jan. 25, 2018
With the proliferation of opioid use in the United States, first responders need access to personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of needlesticks.

“We had over 12,000 OD calls last year,” says Jan Rader, a fire chief in Huntington, WV.

Chief Rader of the Huntington Fire Department is no stranger to the opioid overdose epidemic. The city has been called the overdose capital of the country.

As reported in the recent Netflix documentary "Heroin[e]," Huntington experienced 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses in 2015. With a population of only 48,113, Rader reports the department is responding to approximately seven overdoses on average per day.

What does this have to do with hand protection? Quite a bit.

“We’re dealing with the heroin OD and I was looking for a higher level of protection for my firefighters [the first responders]. We have had multiple exposures to Hepatitis C this year,” she says.

When Rader's crews respond to an overdose call, they often must handle the needles that the victim used to inject drugs into their system. It’s the crew's job to both help the victim and clean up the dirty needles. In these cases, just any hand protection isn’t sufficient. Highly needle-resistant hand protection for first responders in these situations is non-negotiable.

Police officers are subject to needlestick exposure during regular traffic stops, pat downs, property searches and other close-proximity situations with the public.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that one out of three police officers are likely to endure at least one needlestick injury while on the job, and the potential risk for bloodborne disease is rising.

Sixty to 80 percent of injection drug users have hepatitis C and nine percent of new HIV cases come from syringe sharing. Officers who are exposed to needlesticks may have to endure post-exposure prophylaxis treatment, a chemo-like regimen of harsh chemicals that put the officer out of work for months and are costly to departments. This treatment is designed to prevent viral transmission after an exposure.

In correctional facilities, the threat of infection from bloodborne disease is also on the rise. National Geographic's Prison Nation reported that 80 percent of prisoners use drugs and 30 percent are addicted. Frighteningly, HIV rates in correctional facilities are 14 times higher than the general US population. Even with needlestick decriminalization in place in a few US prisons, inmates find creative ways to fabricate a syringe and continue to share a single syringe (real or fabricated) up to 100 times. Fabricated needles for drug use isn’t the only threat: inmates are making and sharing tattooing needles that only increase the risk of sharing a bloodborne disease.

Webb Strang, safety director of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, understands the urgent nature of protecting his correctional officers and staff. He’s implementing a needlestick glove protection program to reduce the risk of life-changing illnesses.

“It’s paralyzing to think about what a needlestick injury can do to a family. Imagine getting stuck and not being able to touch your spouse for months because of this potentially life-changing incident," Strang says. "The safety standard has to change. We want our staff to feel confident to do their job. I believe that needlestick resistant gloves will be a standard for safety just as safety-toed shoes and eyewear. It’s that big!”

Law enforcement, first responders and those involved in the public service industry should take the following steps to implement a needlestick safety program:

Consider the costs of not implementing a needlestick program. A needlestick injury is estimated to cost $4,300 for just the first day of infliction, which includes initial treatment, lost hours and lost wages. The impact can last six weeks to several months after the occurrence. Analyzing and issuing needle-resistant personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, can dramatically reduce the emotional and financial liability of a department. 

Get in-depth with the data. Take some time to really understand what PPE solutions are available to you. Don’t mistake cut-resistant materials as inherently needle-protective.Too many products use terms like “slash-resistant” and “puncture-resistant” to sell their brand but don’t substantiate these claims with test results. There are accepted testing standards for most measurable performance characteristics and needle resistance. Educate yourself on the ASTM-F2878 needlestick safety test so you can compare products head-to-head, and understand which provides you with the protection you need. A good place to start is by speaking to the manufacturers. If they can’t guide you in the right direction regarding testing standards, find a manufacturer who can.

Put the PPE to the test. From gloves to arm guards, there are many solutions for needlestick protection. Try to replicate real-world hazards as best you can in a controlled environment. Without putting anyone at risk, verify that the PPE holds up to your requirements and the hazards that you will face – every situation is different. Does the PPE do what it’s intended to do? Does it allow the dexterity necessary to do the job safely and effectively? If so, try them in real-world situations.

Ultimately, PPE decisions fall on department personnel and department leaders; so be very thorough in the pre-purchase and testing stages. Beyond the due diligence of personally learning, there are many PPE manufacturers and distributors who can guide your purchase through consultation and industry expertise.

“Needlestick protection should be top-of-mind for every law enforcement individual. The risk is too great to ignore,” states Dave Gelpke, HexArmor, vice president of Global Accounts.

About the Author

Kirstie Conklin | Marketing Manager

Kirstie Conklin is a marketing manager at HexArmor. Creating supportive materials and tools for safety advisors is her top priority. She’s worn many hats and loves researching and writing to educate others.

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