According to a recent study done by the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, researchers are now doing their best to implement safety measures for nurses when administering toxic drugs, such as chemotherapy.

Although chemotherapy can save lives, it can be dangerous to any person unintentionally exposed. Exposure to “secondhand chemo” is putting health care workers’ lives at risk and has the potential to effect the nervous system, damage the reproductive system, and increase the risk of blood cancer in the future.

Christopher R. Friese, Ph.D., R.N., A.O.C.N., along with his colleagues from the University of Michigan School of Nursing, surveyed 1,339 oncology nurses, from only one state, that work in outpatient chemotherapy. The survey measured the likelihood of self-reported exposure in relation to their working environment, nursing workloads, and safety standards. The study shows about 17% of nurses working in outpatient settings reported exposure to their skin or eyes in the past year. (All results can be found online in theBMJ Quality and Safety journal.)

According to the study, the researchers found the amount of exposure seemed to be reduced in hospitals containing more staff. Nurses with a higher workload tended to report more incidences than those with lower workloads. Exposure also appeared to decrease in hospitals where two or more nurses were required to administer the drugs. According to the findings, Friese believes it may be possible that unintentional exposure is not always reported, perhaps for fear of embarrassment.

Organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have issued guidelines to decrease the number of unintentional exposures, but they have not yet been made mandatory. It is recommended that nurses use gowns and protective gear when handling chemotherapy drugs, but these guidelines may not be enforced. However, the American Society of Clinical Oncology plans to issue revised guidelines in 2012, in hopes of stressing the importance of the safety of the staff as well as the patients.

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