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The EU directive - One year on

September 30, 2014

Professionals in the healthcare sector know that complying with the latest legislation will not only ensure that institutions are legally sound, but will also help ensure that employers are doing everything possible to keep their workers safe and minimise any risks or hazards.

This was exactly the objective of the EU Needlestick Directive, which was first introduced by the European Commission in May 2010. This gave each Member State of the European Union three years to ensure that all of their hospitals and medical settings were complying with the restrictions and guidelines outlined in the legislation.

What is it?

The directive was introduced to try and reduce the number of injuries occurring in healthcare workers that result from needlestick or other medical sharps. It also outlines what each employer must do in order to safeguard their members of staff in all departments. A major part of this was stating that hospitals, and other medical settings, must use safety devices wherever possible.

It is hoped that these devices, which reduce injuries through incorporating safety mechanisms inside them to protect the needle, will contribute to eliminating these types of incidents for healthcare workers. Having such legislation in place will also help reduce the number of cases of new infections occurring across the continent.

What was it introduced?

The EU Sharps Directive is the latest response to try and reduce the number of injuries suffered by healthcare workers. This came as a result of percutaneous injuries being identified as one of the most serious health and safety threats for healthcare workers. In Europe, it is estimated that more than a million needlestick injuries happen each year. However, it is widely regarded that such figures are unreliable and could be masking the real scale of the issue, as many incidents are thought to go unreported.

Each of these incidents are of concern as they have the potential to spread bloodborne infections from person-to-person such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. As well as being traumatic for healthcare workers, these injuries are a massive expense for medical companies. It is estimated that needlestick injuries cost the NHS around £500,000 per year for each trust.

Has it been effective?

Recent research found that a third of all organisations are breaching the legislation in some parts of the EU. This has caused many experts to be concerned about whether or not the EU Needlestick Directive is effective, and if it is - why are so many hospitals not complying fully?

A report from MindMetre found that 33 per cent of trusts in the UK have not instructed staff to use safety devices "wherever possible" in their sharps policies, despite it being a requirement of the European Union directive.

This triggered the Health and Safety Executive to issue a report on the matter. It read: "The emerging picture is one of widespread progress towards adoption and compliance, but also one which shows that there is considerable ground yet to be covered."

It also noted that most trusts are taking staff safety as a main concern, with 84 per cent of trusts revising their sharps policies as part of the EU directive. However, the body was worried that a more than a tenth of trusts had no plans in place to revise their sharps policy in the light of the new regulations.

What's next for the directive?

It is clear that there is still much progress to be made in eradicating needlestick injuries for healthcare workers across the EU, but the 2013 directive is a significant step towards that. As many campaigners are aware, nothing happens overnight and it may take time for all medical settings to comply with the guidelines. 

However, the fact that a number of trusts do not plan to change their sharps policies is more concerning. Although some of these may not need to adjust their guidelines as they are already compliant, it is more worrying that there are not prepared to at least consult them and check. This may offer guidance to campaigners, that more work still needs to be done to educate various healthcare bodies in this area.

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