As a student or intern working in a hospital for the first time, you’ll have a lot on your mind, and health and safety regulations may not be foremost in your thoughts. It’s understandable. Spending time with severely ill or injured patients can upset your emotional balance and cause you to forget the most basic steps you need to take to keep yourself and others safe. But hospitals are potentially dangerous places for patients as well as medical workers, and you don’t want to be caught in the ironic but all-too-common situation of getting sick or hurt in a medical environment.

So it’s important to keep in mind that while there are a lot of potential hazards in hospitals, there are also regulations and recommendations in place to protect you. Familiarizing yourself with these ahead of time will help you prevent dangerous occurrences and also make sure your employer is providing you with all the safety training and resources you need.

In the U.S., your main source for learning about hospital safety regulations is going to be OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), the organization responsible for setting basic standards for workplace environments. Their webpage includes an easy-to-use eTool that lets you explore the possible hazards found in a hospital as well as the regulations that are in place to prevent them. Here’s an overview of some common hazards to look out for:

Bloodborne Pathogens

Contact with blood, whether through needlesticks or other accidental exposure, can put you at risk for HIV and other infectious diseases. OSHA provides regulations on their webpage for standards that need to be maintained in preventing exposure to bloodborne pathogens, as well as requirements for action following an exposure incident. Your employer is required to keep you informed of an ECP (Exposure Control Plan), which they have to update yearly. You should also receive free, on-the-job training pertaining to bloodborne pathogens, including how and when to use protective clothing and equipment. In case of an exposure incident, you have the right to a confidential follow-up exam as well as an evaluation of what happened and why. The thought of being exposed to bloodborne pathogens is scary, but having a clear idea of how to prevent this from happening, as well as exactly what to do if it ever did, will help put you at ease and greatly reduce the risk of danger.

Be sure to express to your employer any concerns you might have regarding the transport, storage or disposal of biological material. Companies that specialize in the safe handling of these materials are vital to maintaining a safe environment for those working in hospitals, labs and other medical settings. The site pbmmi.com contains more information about biostorage and lab relocation management.

Hazardous Chemicals

Your employer must make you of aware of any chemicals you’ll be working with that are considered hazardous, and must make sure these chemicals are clearly labeled. You should be given proper equipment when handling or at risk for being exposed to dangerous chemicals, such as gloves and goggles. Anytime you’re at risk of exposure, you’ll need to have immediate access to water facilities that can be used to flush your eyes and other exposed areas. You also should receive training in chemical hazard prevention.

Stress

In a hospital setting, you’ll be exposed to emotional, demanding situations involving both patients and their families. It’s important to not only be willing to deal with stress as a reality, but also to take its potential consequences seriously. The OSHA hospital eTool lists stress as a hazard for hospital workers, citing possible effects as trouble sleeping, a higher risk of drug and alcohol use, and problems with job performance.

Another related potential problem is balancing work and home life, which can in itself cause stress. The positive side to this is that physicians may develop effective ways to deal with their relationships based on the challenges they face at work, as we addressed in a recent article about doctors and their marriages.

The ideas behind some of the methods purported to make these marriages work, such as mutual support, parallel OSHA recommendations for prevention of stress at work, like adequate staffing and proper communication between staff to create a more supportive environment. If you find yourself feeling overworked or believe there are any other issues leading you to experience higher levels of stress, talk to your employer about how this might be corrected. In addition, if you feel your workplace would benefit from methods specifically aimed at reducing employee stress, consider suggesting stress management programs or counseling.

Slips and Falls

Slip and fall hazards are a concern in almost any workplace, but a hospital environment, in which the atmosphere is unpredictable and often fast-paced, can be especially worrying. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) provides a comprehensive guide detailing the importance of slip and fall prevention for healthcare workers, as well as common preventable causes for slips and falls. Some of these causes include:

  • Wet floors, including floors contaminated with water, grease or food.
  • Various tripping hazards common in medical settings, such as cords, tubing, and hoses.
  • Bad lighting.
  • Floor mats and runners that are improperly used or maintained.

 OSHA’s recommendations for prevention here involve the basic practices of keeping floors clean and dry and areas uncluttered. Keep an eye out for potential tripping or slipping hazards in your workplace, and be sure to let someone know if you spot conditions that appear unsafe.

Latex Allergies

According to information on latex allergy provided by the ACAAI (American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology), health care workers may be at a higher risk for developing this allergy due to frequent exposure through latex gloves. Symptoms of latex allergies can range from itching and runny nose, to difficulty breathing, or in the most severe cases, anaphylaxis (allergy-induced shock). Powdered latex gloves can especially be a problem, because a person can have an allergic reaction just from inhaling the powder. Whether or not you’ve had any symptoms of latex allergy yourself, you should find out what types of gloves are an option for employees at your hospital and what the associated allergy risks are. Also be aware of whether any of your fellow hospital workers are sensitive to latex, so you can make sure you don’t accidentally expose them.

In addition, OSHA suggestions for helping prevent allergic reactions include only wearing latex gloves when you really need to (when you’re at risk of being exposed to dangerous pathogens), and washing your hands after you take off the gloves.

Keeping up with the latest rules and regulations while working in a hospital will help you take care of yourself and have an overall better experience there. You’ll feel more comfortable knowing the proper procedures and be better able to concentrate on learning and the task at hand. Communicating with your employer and the rest of the staff about hazard prevention will create a more nurturing environment and ensure that everyone is on the same page, which will in turn keep things running smoothly and safely.