What to Do When You Encounter Blood and Bodily Fluids

More than a couple decades ago, I began my service as an Emergency Medical Technician. In those days, colleagues viewed blood-splattered clothes as a badge of pride, because they indicated you had been through a very busy shift with especially tough calls. Blood and dirt were signs you had been busy saving lives. You’d wash up and wait for the next call.

These days, when an ambulance pulls up to a scene, first responders are much more cautious about what they might encounter, especially if that includes blood and other bodily fluids. Awareness of the dangers of air- and blood-borne pathogens has led to extensive training and protective equipment. Most people instantly think of HIV, but that’s only one of many pathogens. The various forms of hepatitis are another.

Most workers will never respond to the kind of serious injuries or accidents that paramedics and emergency room personnel face every day, but they are likely to face situations in which they could be exposed to blood and other bodily fluids. That’s why a key component of every safety program is becoming familiar with the potential hazards and the steps that can be taken to protect workers from exposure.

Why do workers need training? Emergency situations arise without warning, and we tend to react instinctively. A co-worker may receive a serious cut from a tool and begin bleeding. Another co-worker could become ill and vomit in the work area. Reacting to such situations without taking the proper steps could expose co-workers to serious, potentially life-threatening conditions.

Paramedics are taught that it’s important to ensure that they don’t do anything that could make them become a patient. That’s good advice for everyone to follow, and the most basic way to keep that from happening is to follow what are known as universal precautions. That includes barriers that help minimize or limit or reduce exposure to blood and body fluids, such as latex gloves, face shields, and masks that prevent the wearer from airborne pathogens.

Thanks to publicity about HIV and hepatitis, most people have developed a strong aversion to blood, and will instinctively avoid contact with it. But they may not react the same way to other bodily fluids. For example, when someone vomits on a worksite, the natural reaction is to simply wipe or mop it up. But that vomit or another bodily fluid might contain blood-borne pathogens, so it’s important to follow OSHA’s cleanup guidelines. Typically, that involves the use of a neutralizing agent such as a bleach solution, and then identifying and disposing the waste material as a biohazard.

Pathogens may also be airborne. You might be aware that someone who sneezes on you could expose you to a pathogen, but what if that person sneezes into his hand and then grabs a door handle? The pathogen might stay alive on that door handle for anywhere from a few minutes to several days, and anyone who touches it could become exposed.

Some people might look at universal precautions as being overprotective, but you never know what your co-workers and other people you encounter may have been exposed to. You don’t know what kind of activities they are involved in, or the types of people with whom they may come in contact. Paramedics and medical professionals have a thorough understanding of the potential hazards, and because of that, they choose to proceed very carefully. All workers would be wise to follow their example.

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