Federal health officials last week recommended that hospitals and other health care facilities use safer needles and syringes to protect thousands of workers from dangerous infections received when they accidentally prick themselves with a used needle.

Some 600,000 to 800,000 health workers accidentally stick themselves each year, putting themselves at risk for such diseases as hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved sale of 50 types of specially protected needles and syringes--many with retractable sharp ends or other safety features--along with numerous other protective devices. But the American Nurses Association says just 15 percent of hospitals have adopted safer needles.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged more health facilities to use protective devices as part of a comprehensive program to better prevent needle accidents. The recommendations carry no force of law but do provide guidance for employers and workers.

"The public attention and awareness of this problem has lagged behind the scope of it," said Linda Rosenstock, director of CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "For every 100 beds a hospital has, on average it has 30 needle stick injuries per year."

"Too many people see needle stick injuries as a routine part of doing business," she added. "We want to change that view."

The CDC's strongly worded safety alert, sent to hospitals, nurses and physicians groups and other health facilities last week, is the latest in a trend toward safer needles that manufacturers say may soon increase sales.

California last summer ordered use of the protective devices, two other states have passed similar laws, and 20 other states are considering the issue. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration this month strengthened its own rules in a way that may let OSHA inspectors cite health facilities for failing to use safer needles.

The safety features often work as simply as a ballpoint pen, said James Donegan, chief executive of Med-Design Corp., which develops retractable needles and syringes. For example, push a syringe plunger an extra time and it makes the needle retract inside its plastic coating before it's ever removed from the patient, explained Donegan.

There is even a vaccine injector with no needle at all: BioJect's vaccine gun uses pressure to force certain vaccines through the skin.

Yet these safer needles have been slow to spread largely because they cost more, manufacturers and health experts say. A standard blood collection needle, for example, costs about 6 cents, while a safer version costs about 25 cents. That adds up, considering the nation uses about half a billion of those needles each year.

Nurses are injured most often, but doctors, laboratory staff and other workers also get stuck, the CDC said. The accidents are estimated to give at least 1,000 workers HIV or hepatitis annually.

But safety devices are only part of the solution, Rosenstock said. The CDC urged health workers to report all needle sticks promptly so they can receive appropriate care; safely dispose of any needle-like device and avoid recapping needles; tell their employers about needle hazards they observe; and get a vaccination to prevent contracting hepatitis B from an accidental needle stick.