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Clinton Signs Bill for Safer Needles

      The decades-long battle for federal protections against deadly needle sticks culminated in victory yesterday when President Clinton signed legislation requiring medical facilities across the nation to use safer syringes and blood-drawing devices.

      The Needle Stick Safety and Prevention Act is expected to help save the lives of thousands of nurses, doctors and other health care workers who each year contract HIV, hepatitis C and other potentially lethal viruses from injuries involving contaminated needles.

      Noting that the act drew bipartisan support, Clinton said it "makes clearer" the duty of employers to protect employees and pushes manufacturers to "increase the number of safer devices" on the market.

      "It''s amazing that a dream to protect health care

      workers came true today at the Oval Office," said Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has campaigned for needle-stick prevention laws since the 1980s. "There are moments when democracy works, and the people are heard."

      Modeled on a 1998 California statute sponsored by Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, the federal law requires health care facilities to provide employees with syringes and blood-drawing devices that retract, blunt or cover needles after use. The safety features could eliminate up to 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 needle injuries that occur each year in the United States, studies show.

      The laws were prompted by a series of Chronicle stories that described how needle sticks had infected tens of thousands of nurses, doctors, lab technicians and public safety workers with HIV and hepatitis viruses since the 1980s.

      The stories reported that needles with safety features had existed since at least 1988, but few were being used because of inadequate regulation and the higher cost of the devices.

      The act signed yesterday requires that workers who care for patients be directly involved in selecting the safety needles used in the workplace. The provision was a major victory for labor unions, which have argued that many hospitals buy the cheapest and least effective safety devices without consulting the employees who use them.

      But the American Hospital Association said yesterday that it also was happy to see the provision in the new law.

      "You need to have the people who actually use the devices involved in the process," said Rick Wade, senior vice president of the association.

      Wade also praised the law for accommodating technology as it may develop in the future rather than specifying which devices health care facilities must use.

      Regulations in the law require employers to keep detailed logs of when needle injuries occur and how they happen so that researchers can determine ways to prevent future incidents.

      The secretary of labor now has up to six months to publish the new regulations in the Federal Register. They will take effect 90 days after publication.

      The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will have primary responsibility for enforcing the new law, but the agency stressed yesterday that it is already policing health care facilities under a 1999 agency directive that allows safety inspectors to penalize facilities for failing to use needle-safety devices. The new law essentially codifies that directive, an OSHA spokeswoman explained.

      In August, OSHA chief Charles Jeffress said the agency had identified about 2,600 hospitals and nursing homes with high levels of needle injuries and would inspect approximately one-third of them for compliance with the safer-needles guidelines. He said the inspectors would be looking to see whether the facilities had "reviewed what devices they are using and what devices are on the market. . . . Our goal is to reduce the number (of injuries), not to issue penalties and citations."

      An OSHA spokeswoman said yesterday the agency would continue that approach.

      Clinton''s signing of the new law caps a series of recent state and federal moves to deal with a needle-stick epidemic that threatens the health and safety of 8 million nurses, doctors and other medical and public safety workers around the nation.

      Since California took action in 1998, 16 states have passed laws requiring safer needles in health care facilities.

      One year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta issued a strongly worded safety alert to the nation''s hospitals, warning of the serious dangers of accidental needle sticks. The alert noted that for every 100 beds, an average of 30 potentially fatal needle injuries occur each year in hospitals. Up to 80 percent of the injuries can be eliminated through the use of needles and syringes with built-in safety features, the CDC said.

      But Congressman Pete Stark, D-Fremont, a sponsor of the new law, warned yesterday that "our job is not done."

      "Because of intricacies in federal law, this bill will not protect health care workers in every public hospital. We must still work together to accomplish that goal."

     

(C) 2000 The San Francisco Chronicle via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.




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