The early part of my career in hospital virus labs entailed working with viruses on the open bench because exhaust protective cabinets were not commonplace. During that time, I contracted influenza and viral meningitis, and tests confirmed that the isolated strains were identical to those I'd been working with. It could have been worse.
One outcome was a heightened interest in occupational health, and I often contemplated whether responsibility for my health and safety lay primarily with my employer or with me. An answer suggested itself on the lab locker room mirror. A sticker bore the message: 'This person is responsible for your safety'.
I mention this because I've just read a report published in December 2014 by PHE. It's entitled Eye of the needle: United Kingdom surveillance of significant occupational exposures to bloodborne viruses in healthcare workers. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there were 4,830 such exposures, and 71% of 4,766 exposures involved a needlestick injury, mostly with hollow-bore needles, between 2004 and 2013.
It is encouraging to note from the report that the percentage of injuries sustained in community settings fell from 7% in 2004 to 3% in 2013. Further grounds for optimism came with the news that, while 590 healthcare workers had had significant occupational exposures to hepatitis B virus (HBV) between 2004 and 2013, none had sero-converted. This was attributed to '… a combination of the success of the HBV immunisation programme among healthcare workers and prevention and risk-reduction strategies implemented in the healthcare setting.'
However, while this might provide grounds for cautious optimism, it is worth reminding ourselves of two things. First, a Europe-wide country study found that only 20–50% of all needlestick injuries are reported. Second, a recent risk evaluation of reported practices and policies in 21 acute care trusts within the NHS in London found that over 90% of all exposures resulted from failures to comply with DH guidance on the safe management of healthcare waste.
It seems worth reiterating that we are each responsible for our own safety.