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Bloodborne pathogens: Approach with respect, not fear

September 19, 2010
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Biohazards and bloodborne pathogens can seem intimidating if you’re unfamiliar with them.

They are invisible to the naked eye, and we’ve all heard stories about the terrible things they can do to you.

When you understand them, you remove the mystery and eradicate your fear.

Humans carry millions of potentially harmful bacteria on their skin, in their stomachs, and elsewhere on their bodies in the normal course of their lives.

Most of these bacteria cause little or no harm to us for two reasons:

  1. Many bacteria are necessary for human processes such as digestion. If we didn’t have digestive bacteria in our stomachs and intestinal tracts, we would starve to death.
  2. The human immune system has developed throughout millions of years to keep harmful bacteria under control. When we get a fever or have a cut on a finger that gets red and swollen, that’s our immune system fighting and killing the invading bacteria.

It’s only when our bodies are overwhelmed with massive amounts of unfamiliar or deadly bacteria that we succumb to deadly diseases.

What are biohazards and bloodborne pathogens?
A biohazard is simply a biological entity (normally a bacteria, fungus, virus or spore) that has the potential to cause harm to some other biological entity. You spread biohazard material after covering your mouth during a sneeze and failing to wash your hands; everything you touch is then contaminated with biohazardous material.

A bloodborne pathogen is a biohazard present in blood. Pathogen simply means "disease causing".

Most people think of human blood, but bloodborne pathogens can also be present in animal blood. Other bodily fluids can be likely carriers of bloodborne pathogens. (See "Pathogen carriers")

The role of housekeeping
Housekeeping’s role in preventing the transmission of diseases caused by bloodborne pathogens is to remove the pathogens before they can come into contact with skin or mucous membranes. To do this, the department needs to do three things:

  1. Protect its cleaners
  2. Remove and/or disinfect the material
  3. Dispose of the material in an approved manner

Personal protection
Your facility should have an Exposure Control plan that dictates how you should employ personal protection and other aspects of handling bloodborne pathogens. The plan should address the following components of personal protection:

  • Gloves. Hand protection must be worn while cleaning up bloodborne pathogen spills. There are many different glove types (thick, thin, long or short cuffed, puncture-proof, hypo-allergenic). The only requirement is that they must be appropriate for the task.
  • Face and eye protection. Facial protection must be worn if splashing or spraying of infectious material is anticipated.
  • Clothing. Regular uniform clothing is appropriate for cleaning up bloodborne pathogen spills as long as the spill is small and contained. Fluid-resistant clothing must be worn if there is a chance for splashing or soak-through.

Removal and disinfection
In general, the bulk of the bloodborne pathogen spill should be removed prior to final disinfection of the contaminated surface. Bulk material is defined as the material that cannot be removed completely using a cleaning cloth alone.

If you’re using a pre-packaged biohazard spill removal kit, there should be some kind of chlorine-infused absorbent powder or granular material to sprinkle onto the bulk biohazard material just prior to removal.

If you don’t have a biohazard removal kit, use a towel or several paper towels to remove the bulk of the material. Place the collected material into an appropriately labeled biohazard bag to be laundered or disposed of.

Place disinfectant solution on the entire area where the spill occurred and, after the appropriate dwell time (usually 10 minutes), remove the solution using a clean cloth. Remove the cloth, gloves and other personal protection garments and place them into the labeled biohazard bag for disposal or laundering.

Ralph Rice is president, Housekeeping Systems, Inc., St. Louis.

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