Cytotoxins are treating more diseases than ever but employers aren''t responding to the increased risks
They fight some of the most harmful diseases, but as the name suggests they can do as much harm as good. Cytotoxic medications are commonly thought of as chemotherapy cancer treatments but the truth is they are being used to treat an increasing number of illnesses, including Multiple Sclerosis, Chrohn''s and arthritis.
Negative side effects range from eye and skin irritation, allergic reactions and hair loss, to organ damage, reproductive issues and an increased cancer risk. And because cytoxins are capable of entering the body multiple ways, patients are not the only ones at risk.
Health-care workers have sent AUPE hundreds of complaints citing potentially dangerous exposure to these medications - between July 10 and Aug. 2 alone there were a dozen - raising serious concerns about occupational health and safety (OHS) procedures.
As the use of cytotoxic medications increases, worksite risks also rise. In 2014, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) made updates to their list of hazardous drugs, requiring stronger OHS standards for cytotoxic medication handling than previously recommended. Many of the additions to the list were pills, because when crushed or dissolved, the medication can enter workers'' bodies through direct skin contact or through the air. Needles, other medical equipment, soiled bed linens and gowns containing traces can also affect nurses and support staff if they aren''t wearing proper personal equipment (PPE).
One of the first things health-care workers should do if they''ve been exposed is file a report-only claim with the Workers'' Compensation Board. Then the incident is reported to your union and through Alberta OHS.
Still, questions linger: why is this is an issue, especially when 69 per cent of the cytotoxic medications on NIOSH''s list come with manufacturers'' safe-handling guidance? Moreover, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Cancer Board have published comprehensive texts on safe cytotoxic handling.
A lack of training is one potential culprit. Employers should not only provide PPE, but also facilitate written procedures and mandatory training for safe handling.
Legislation is another. Alberta has never enshrined standards for safe cytotoxic-drug handling, falling behind provinces like Saskatchewan. With enough pushback from workers, Alberta will hopefully reassess, and raise its standards to fall in line with other provinces.