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California regulators cited and fined Kaiser Foundation Hospitals $149,900 after three employees were stuck by needles in a collection box for biomedical waste, exposing them to infectious diseases.
The custodial employees were stuck while attempting to empty the deposit box, which frequently overflowed and prevented the lid from closing properly, according to a news release issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health on Thursday. All three employees were given prophylactic medication to prevent disease or unwanted consequences, the regulators said.
The agency cited Kaiser for five workplace safety violations of the bloodborne pathogens standard, which requires employers to protect workers from coming into contact with blood or other disease-carrying body fluids, according to the release.
The first injury occurred in 2013 and the other two this year, with Cal/OSHA's investigation beginning in June after regulators received a complaint, according to the agency.
Kaiser members deposit their used needles through a hinged slot on the metal box, and the needles fall into an inner plastic disposal box to contain biomedical waste. Employees transferred the contents into a larger disposal container for collection by Kaiser's waste hauling contractor, according to the press release.
Cal/OSHA investigators learned that employees were instructed to clean the box using a broom and dustpan. When those tools proved inadequate, employees had to reach into the box to remove spilled waste even though needles were often deposited without protective caps, according to the agency.
The hazardous conditions were corrected after Cal/OSHA's inspection, with Kaiser replacing the kiosk with two larger disposal units and requiring they be monitored every 30 minutes.
“Hospital workers are exposed to known hazards on a daily basis, and their employers have a responsibility to recognize these hazards and protect their employees,” said Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, of which Cal/OSHA is a division.
“The safety of our employees is always our top priority,” Kaiser Permanente said in a statement regarding investigation.
“Prior to the Cal-OSHA investigation, Kaiser Permanente Vallejo was already actively addressing this matter, including purchasing larger and better designed kiosks for the safe storage and disposal of sharps collected from the public,” the statement said. “We have since taken further action to protect our staff, including providing employees with additional training and replacing their protective gear. No injuries have been reported since the installation of the new kiosks, and any that occurred in the past were inadvertent. We received the citations from Cal-OSHA Wednesday and we are reviewing the documents to determine next steps.”
Better strategies are needed to ensure health care workers don't come in contact with contaminants while removing personal protective equipment, experts say.