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At the Sharp End

Chukwudubem (Chuks) Ifeajuna 11 May 2023

Chukwudubem (Chuks) Ifeajuna, RCN South East Safety Rep Committee Member looks at the RCN’s work to protect members from sharps injuries. 

Anyone who has sustained a sharps (needlestick) injury or who has supported a colleague who has, will know the psychological impact it can have, especially if the source of the needle is unknown.  Weeks of sleepless nights, worrying about whether you may be infected or not, worries about infecting your partner and then dealing with the physical impact of taking antiviral drugs - all takes a toll on wellbeing.   

However, it’s not just the impact on the individual, it’s also the cost to the NHS. According to NHS Resolution, sharps injury claims for NHS workers in England for the period of 2010 to 2022 sat at just over 10 million pounds. NHS organisations have also received fines from the Health and Safety Executive for failing in their duty to protect staff and then there’s the hidden costs from injuries, including the cost of treatments and the backfilling of posts if staff need to take time off for attending appointments or due to the side effects of antivirals. 

With over 20 pathogens that can be transmitted via a sharps injury, including Hepatitis C, HIV and more recently MPox, prevention is essential.

The RCN has a long history of campaigning for the improved protection of nursing staff and others who work in the health and social care sector from this occupational hazard. Campaigning stepped up in the late 90s after members heard an American nurse speak at the RCN Congress on the impact a sharps injury had on her – she had contracted both Hepatitis C and HIV from a contaminated needle. The RCN became one of the founder members of the Safer Needles Network (now known as the Safer Healthcare and Biosafety Network), pushing for the adoption of safe working practices and safer sharps devices.

In the early 2010s, working with European health care unions and employer representative bodies, the RCN supported the development of a framework agreement and directive on the prevention of sharps injuries which led to the Health and Safety (Sharps Instruments in Healthcare) Regulations 2013 / Health and Safety (Sharps Instruments in Healthcare) Regulations 2013 Northern Ireland.

On 11 May 2023, it will be the ten year anniversary of  the regulations coming into force and whilst there is evidence that organisations are investing in safer sharps devices, the RCN’s 2020 sharps survey shows that there is still more work to do with 15% of respondents reporting that they had sustained a sharps injury in the last year, and 17% of those not formally reporting it.

So going forward into the next 10 years, let’s aim for zero sharps injuries. As nursing staff, we all have a part to play in protecting ourselves and others, including our domestics and porters, and safe disposal, no recapping and reporting of all sharps injuries is a key part of this.

As RCN safety reps we will continue to check on employers’ risk assessments to ensure that they are doing all they should to comply with safety laws and protect members.

You can find out more about prevention and compliance with the regulations by reading the RCN’s guidance on sharps. You can also download a new RCN poster to display in your workplace. Let’s work together towards zero sharps injuries.   

Chukwudubem (Chuks) Ifeajuna

Chukwudubem (Chuks) Ifeajuna

RCN South East Safety Rep Committee Member

Page last updated - 09/10/2023