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Lessons learned in healthcare safety

September is traditionally the month when the nation’s students go back to school. So for the upcoming September issue of Medical Environment Update, we thought it would be a good time to think about lifelong learning in the safety profession, which is constantly changing.

We asked some safety experts: if you could teach the newer folks in the safety field a thing or two about the job, what would it be?

“That idea didn’t work last time we tried.” – Veteran safety experts have seen a lot of things come and go in the world of healthcare safety. Some things are with us still and some aren’t. They will tell you about the days when sucking blood up into a pipette with your mouth was an acceptable way to transfer blood, and about the days when wearing gloves was a personal decision. Then again, Hepatitis and HIV weren’t as big a concern back then, either.

“Safety comes first, sometimes.” – Human nature being what it is, we usually look for the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to complete tasks. In the workplace, that can lead to injuries, especially if strict protocols and safety procedures aren’t adhered to, or if safety equipment isn’t used. Consider the fact that the majority of injuries suffered by healthcare workers from slips, trips and falls are caused by improperly lifting heavy loads, wearing the wrong footwear, or just simply being careless while rushing through a task.

“Accept what you don’t know.” – Medical training programs only teach so much, and there’s a big difference between what you learn in the books and on-the-job experience. Many veterans in the healthcare safety field will tell you that much of what you learn will be in the trenches, making mistakes and watching others go about their jobs. Don’t be afraid to be a lifelong student.

“But study up, and take notes.” – Your time as a student will be short lived, however, as you will at some point need to step up and be the one in the know, the one who teaches, and the one responsible for the answers others don’t know. You should develop a habit for taking detailed notes, keeping good files and records, and knowing where to find the answers—especially if an OSHA inspector comes looking for them.

“We’re all in this together.” – You may be the safety expert, but you are only one person. Many veteran safety experts will tell you that they can only do their jobs properly if every person under them (and above them, for that matter) is committed to working within a culture of safety. For that reason, it is extremely important early on in your safety career to establish a good rapport with your staff, model good behaviors, and find people within your facility that you can trust to be your eyes (and your mouth) when you can’t be there.

“There are so many lessons, but I think a really important message is that it is everyone’s responsibility,” says Anne Newman, RN, Nurse Manager, Employee Health Services, Meriter – UnityPoint Health, Madison, Wisconsin.

“Your job is yucky.” – We all take for granted that when we visit the doctor, we will be cared for in an environment that is free from germs and generally clean. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Improper disinfection in hospitals and medical clinics is one of the reason that one in four patients get an infection they didn’t come in with.

“I am shocked at the things I see in doctors’ offices,” says Kathy Rooker, owner of Columbus Healthcare & Safety Consultants in Canal Winchester, Ohio, and who also specializes in performing mock healthcare inspections.

Check out these and other lessons in the September issue of MEU, coming out soon.