Time for my periodic reminder about your Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) obligations. The health care field still has the most work-related illness and injury reports of any industry in the United States, and OSHA standards are in place to minimize potential workplace incidents.
Even if you hold regular safety meetings (which all too often is not the case), the occasional comprehensive review is always a good idea, and could save you a bundle in fines.
For starters, do you have an official OSHA poster, enumerating employee rights and explaining how to file complaints? Every office must have one posted in plain sight, and it is the first thing an OSHA inspector will look for. You can download one from OSHA’s website or order one at no charge by calling 800-321-OSHA.
The poster discusses the “general standards” that all workplaces must comply with to avoid work-related illnesses and injuries. The standards most applicable to medical offices are those dealing with personal protective equipment (PPE), bloodborne pathogens, hazard communication, and – increasingly, of late – ionizing radiation.
Physicians have become all too familiar with the PPE standard as a result of the COVID pandemic. Ironically, OSHA considers PPE a less acceptable means of employee protection than the other standards, as safe work practices should always supersede safety equipment. Nevertheless, employers must have a PPE program in place to train employees on what equipment is necessary, and under which conditions.
You also need a written exposure control plan for bloodborne pathogens. It should document your use of such protective equipment as gloves, face and eye protection, needle guards, and gowns, and your implementation of universal precautions – and it is supposed to be updated annually, to reflect changes in technology. You must provide all at-risk employees with hepatitis B vaccine at no cost to them. You also must provide and pay for appropriate medical treatment and follow-up after any exposure to a dangerous pathogen.
You need not adopt every new safety device as it comes on the market, but you should document which ones you are using – and which you pass up – and why. For example, you and your employees may decide not to purchase a new safety needle because you don’t think it will improve safety, or that it will be more trouble than it’s worth; but you should document how you arrived at that decision, and why you feel that your current protocol is as good or better.
The hazard communication (or right-to-know) standard involves compiling a list of hazardous substances, which all employees have a right to know about. Keep in mind that OSHA’s list includes alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, acetone, liquid nitrogen, and other substances that you might not consider particularly dangerous, but are nevertheless classified as “hazardous.” For each substance, your employees must have access to the manufacturer-supplied Material Safety Data Sheet, which outlines the proper procedures for working with a specific material, and for handling and containing it in a spill or other emergency.
If your office has x-ray equipment, or you are considering one of the new image-guided superficial radiotherapy machines, you must be in compliance with the ionizing radiation standard, which entails shielding, radiation monitors, and clear labeling of equipment.
Other, more general regulations include the physical setup of your office. Everyone must be able to evacuate quickly in case of fire or other emergencies. At a minimum, you (or the owner of the office building) are expected to establish exit routes to accommodate all employees and to post easily visible evacuation diagrams.
Examine all electrical devices and their power sources. All electrically powered equipment – medical, clerical, or anything else in the office – must operate safely. Pay particular attention to the way wall outlets are set up. Make sure each outlet has sufficient power to run the equipment plugged into it, and that circuit breakers are present and functioning. And beware the common situation of too many gadgets running off a single circuit.
Other components of the rule include proper containment of regulated medical waste, identification of regulated-waste containers, sharps disposal boxes, and periodic employee training regarding all of these things.
Federal OSHA regulations do not require medical and dental offices to keep an injury and illness log, as other businesses must; but your state may have a requirement that supersedes the federal law. Check with your state, or with your local OSHA office, regarding any such requirements.
It is a mistake to take OSHA regulations lightly; failure to comply with them can result in stiff penalties running into many thousands of dollars. How can you be certain you are complying with all the rules? The easiest and cheapest way is to call your local OSHA office and request an inspection. Why would you do that? Because OSHA issues no citations during voluntary inspections as long as you agree to remedy any violations they find.
Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.