Scary close calls in healthcare safety

By: September 23rd, 2014 Email This Post Print This Post

In our upcoming October issue of Medical Environment Update, our experts tell ghoulish tales of lessons they came a little too close to learning in their careers in safety. If you’ve been in the safety field for any length of time, you’ve heard the warnings of all the things that can go wrong in the workplace. If you’re lucky, you’ve never had to live the consequences of a truly bad accident—something that can maim you for life or change your life or career forever.

The reality, however, is that over the course of a career that can span 20 or 30 years, chances are that you will experience a scary close call—whether it was caused by carelessness by yourself or a co-worker or circumstances beyond your control.

We almost poisoned the water system – When you’re at home, it’s taken for granted that you can pretty much pour anything down the drain, because chances are you aren’t pouring poison away. In a lab or medical office, that might be a different story, and if you aren’t careful you can pollute or even poison the water supply.

“When I first became a safety officer, we got notified right away that the effluent from our hospital was bad,” says Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multi-hospital system in the Tidewater region of Virginia. “Back in those days it was OK to pour things down the sink, but you have to do it right, because the local wastewater authority is very specific about what you can put down the drain. They want certain bacteria living in the water system and a low pH will kill it.”

Chemicals almost burned the maintenance guy – You’ll hear it over and over again: wear your PPE when you are handling hazardous materials, especially eye protection. Why? Because you never know when an accidental spill might get in your eyes.

In a hospital she worked in, Marge McFarlane, PhD, MT(ASCP), CHSP, CHFM, HEM, MEP, CHEP, principal of Superior Performance, LLC, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,  says a maintenance worker was called to investigate a water leak in a ceiling. When he opened the ceiling tiles—without eye protection—it turned out to be Potassium Hydroxide, a chemical with a pH of about 13 used in radiology processing in a lab directly above him. Apparently, workers had cut plastic corners off film being developed, which allowed the chemical to overflow in the drain above and leak through the ceiling.

“Talk about scary, because it will burn your eyes out,” she says. “It’s a very caustic material. He was just responding to a routine call.”

Someone torched the lab courier’s car – Most labs and medical offices take advantage of a courier service of some sort to transport specimens and records, but no one expects them to take a joyride and end up in a fireball. That’s exactly what happened in Scungio’s system, when a thief took off with the courier’s car.

“To take a short cut he left his car open and running while running into a doctor’s office, and the car got stolen with patient specimens and reports,” he says, adding that the compromised patient data was a major HIPAA violation. “If that wasn’t enough he took it into a field and torched the car, and threw the records out in a field. These are real stories; this really happened. Don’t leave your cars running or unlocked. It wasn’t pretty.”


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