Agreement on preventing sharp instrument injuries at work in healthcare sector

The social partners in the healthcare sector have signed an agreement that aims to set minimum standards for preventing needle stick and other sharp instrument injuries at work. The new agreement covers all hospital and healthcare workers in the public and private sectors. It promotes the safest possible working environment by introducing risk assessment, prevention, training and awareness raising initiatives. The agreement is the outcome of consultations that began in 2006.

In the healthcare sector, more than a million injuries involving needle sticks and other sharp instruments occur every year in the workplace. While many resulting injuries will be relatively minor, there are particular risks associated with the healthcare sector, which employs 3.5 million workers in the EU. The framework agreement signed by the European Hospital and Healthcare Employers’ Association (Hospeem) and the European Federation of Public Services Unions (EPSU) on 17 July 2009 therefore represents an important initiative for the sector. The agreement also addresses one of the priority objectives of the current EU Strategy for health and safety at work 2007–2012, which aims to reduce work-related accidents across the EU by 25%. The strategy document acknowledges the healthcare sector as a sector that is particularly dangerous for workers in terms of the risk of injury.

The agreement signed by Hospeem and EPSU was concluded after five months’ of negotiations between the European social partners and represents one of the outcomes of the sectoral social dialogue committee process, which was initiated in 2006.

Aims of agreement

The agreement aims to:

  • achieve the safest possible working environment for workers in the healthcare sector;
  • prevent injuries to workers, caused by all medical sharps (including needle sticks);
  • protect workers at risk;
  • set up an integrated approach establishing policies in risk assessment, risk prevention, training, information, awareness raising and monitoring;
  • implement response and follow-up procedures.

Coverage of workers

The agreement applies to all workers in the hospital and healthcare sector and all who are under the managerial authority and supervision of employers. It covers both the public and private sectors ‘and every other place where health services/activities are undertaken and delivered, under the managerial authority and supervision of the employer’. It defines sharp instruments as those ‘necessary for the exercise of specific healthcare activities which are able to cut, prick and cause injury and/or infection’.

The agreement recognises that the role of health and safety representatives ‘is key in risk prevention and protection’ and that employers and employee representatives will work together to eliminate and prevent risks. It states that this joint working would include consultation on the choice and use of safe equipment as well as on appropriate training. The agreement also promotes the elimination of unnecessary use of sharps through the encouragement of changes in practices.

Reaction to agreement

The President of the EPSU health committee, Karen Jennings, described the agreement as representing ‘tremendous progress of the European hospital social dialogue process, but most importantly it makes a clear and positive contribution to the working lives of Europe’s healthcare workers’. Representing the employers, Hospeem’s General Secretary, Godfrey Perera, described it as an agreement in the interests of employers in the sector ‘who have a moral obligation to protect their workers’ health and safety’.

Process of implementation

The origins of the agreement date back to 2006 when the European Parliament adopted a resolution favouring a directive on the protection of healthcare workers from blood-borne infections caused by needle stick injuries. However, after two-stage consultations and the organisation of a technical seminar that highlighted the many causes of injuries in hospitals, the social partners informed the European Commission of their intention to negotiate on a wider basis to cover all types of sharp injuries. The July 2009 agreement represents the outcome of this negotiating process. Following its conclusion, the agreement was referred to the Commission, which considered the text of the agreement. The Commission has indicated that it has accepted the social partners’ request that the agreement should be presented to the Council of Ministers to implement it by way of a directive in accordance with Article 139 of the EC Treaty. The matter will therefore now be referred to the Council of Ministers so that it might form the basis of a new directive.

Sonia McKay, Working Lives Research Institute

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