Researchers surveyed 1,339 oncology nurses in one state who work in outpatient chemotherapy infusion centers and found that nearly 17% said their skin or eyes had been exposed to the drugs.
In the United States, about 84 percent of chemotherapy is delivered in outpatient clinics. Accidental chemotherapy exposure can harm the nervous and reproductive systems and increase the risk of blood cancers, according to the study authors, from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
"Any unintentional exposure to the skin or eyes could be just as dangerous as a needle stick," study lead author Christopher Friese, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, said.
"We have minimised needle stick incidents so that they are rare events that elicit a robust response from administrators. Nurses go immediately for evaluation and prophylactic treatment. But we don't have that with chemotherapy exposure," Friese said.
Chemo exposure a job hazard
Nurses at chemotherapy clinics with more staff and resources reported fewer exposures, as did those at practises in which two or more nurses were required to verify orders.
"This research shows that paying attention to the workload, the health of an organisation, and the quality of working conditions pays off. It's not just about job satisfaction - it's likely to lower the risk of these occupational hazards," Friese said.
The study was released in the online first edition of the journal BMJ Quality and Safety.
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has issued guidelines for chemotherapy drug administration but the guidelines are not mandatory. Recommendations include using protective gear such as gowns and gloves when handling chemo drugs, according to background information in the news release.
The American Cancer Society has more about chemotherapy.
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