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Alberta healthcare workers are poorly protected from dangerous meds: AUPE

Union continues to receive reports from members


(Canadian OH&S News) — The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) has filed five occupational health and safety complaints with the provincial government regarding worker exposure to cytotoxic medications — which potentially cause effects ranging from skin and eye irritation to cancer.

The union stated in a July 17 news release that the complaints had stemmed from exposure incidents in Edmonton, Westlock, Cold Lake and Vegreville and that reports of exposure from AUPE members continued to trickle in every day. Cytotoxic medications are primarily used in chemotherapy, although medical professionals also use them to treat rheumatoid and juvenile arthritis.

The employees “were handling the medication without proper personal protective equipment, and then there were some in there trying to link it back to health concerns as well,” explained AUPE oh&s representative Trevor Hansen, “after, of course, we noted some of the acute and the chronic illnesses that could be associated with cytotoxics.”

The medications have also been linked to vital organ damage and pregnancy-related health issues like birth defects, according to the union.

“At the time when we launched our campaign,” said Hansen, referring to the union’s actions to raise public awareness of the drugs’ hazards, “we had about 100 concerns from various healthcare workers across the province in regards to cytotoxic medication.” Since the launch, AUPE has received “an additional 30 to 40 complaints from our membership.”

Todd Gilchrist, vice president of people, legal and privacy for Alberta Health Services (AHS), said in a media statement that AUPE members had made the employer aware of the exposure incidents upon their occurrences in April and June.

“AHS Workplace Health and Safety conducted a health and safety investigation to determine the level of exposure and potential risk,” said Gilchrist. “After speaking with each employee and reviewing their individual actions and relevant safety protocols, it was determined that there had been no exposure that could cause harm. This was communicated back to employees and their labour representatives.

“We have no reason to believe that harmful exposures have occurred or that any staff member has experienced adverse health effects from exposure to cytotoxic medications. Although no employees reported any illness or health effects, Workplace Health and Safety occupational health nurses reached out to affected staff to hear their concerns and answer any questions.”

But Hansen said that there was a “lack of awareness” about the side effects of cytotoxic medications in the industry.

“Nursing staff, they hear the words ‘cytotoxic medication’, they link it back to how it affects patients,” said Hansen. “We’re finding the culture in healthcare, it’s very patient-focused as to how it affects patients and clients. A lot of nursing staff don’t actually take the effects as to how it’s going to affect them as a worker.”

In addition, workers in facility maintenance and food services often know nothing about cytotoxic medications or the risks of exposure. “We’re finding the employers that have practices in place sporadically throughout the province. It’s not consistent.”

AUPE recommends that healthcare workers wear special chemotherapy gloves and non-impermeable gowns, as well as respirators and eye protection, to prevent exposure.

“That would extend into both our auxiliary nursing group, who are the nurses that would be preparing and administering the drugs,” said Hansen about the union’s recommendations. “We’re advising our general support staff to take similar precautions.”

Gilchrist said that AHS has safety policies, procedures, education and training to deal with the hazards of exposure to cytotoxic medications. “We will continue to work with staff and unions to ensure the continued health, safety and wellness of all AHS employees,” he said.

“The health and safety of staff is our top priority. We continue to take steps to ensure their ongoing health, safety and wellness.”