The Ebola outbreak shows that being on the front lines of disease can be particularly dangerous business for health-care workers. More than 230 workers have died overseas trying to battle the deadly virus, and the infection of a Dallas nurse treating the first U.S. patient diagnosed with Ebola is a reminder that health-care workers put themselves at risk to treat the sick.
When it comes to treating Ebola patients, it's hard to understate how careful health-care workers must be. As this graphic explains, there's about 30 distinct steps workers have to take to avoid a risk of infection. After the infection of the Dallas nurse, the CDC is rethinking protocols for care — and that's after the country's largest nurse's union has warned that its members haven't been adequately trained on Ebola.
Of course, Ebola is a special case, but health-care workers face significant risks on the job. In fact, working in health care is about the unhealthiest profession you could choose.
Health-care and social assistance workers reported 653,900 injury and illness cases in 2010, far more than any other private industry sector, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That's significantly more than manufacturing and construction, which used to be much more dangerous industries by comparison. The following chart showing injury and illness rates over a 20-year period indicates that health-care's modest safety improvements have been far outpaced by other sectors.
So, what makes health care work so dangerous? Here's OSHA's explanation:
Healthcare workers face a number of serious safety and health hazards. They include bloodborne pathogens and biological hazards, potential chemical and drug exposures, waste anesthetic gas exposures, respiratory hazards, ergonomic hazards from lifting and repetitive tasks, laser hazards, workplace violence, hazards associated with laboratories, and radioactive material and x-ray hazards. Some of the potential chemical exposures include formaldehyde, used for preservation of specimens for pathology; ethylene oxide, glutaraldehyde, and paracetic acid used for sterilization; and numerous other chemicals used in healthcare laboratories.
Not for the faint of heart, basically. Fortunately, the U.S. health-care industry in the past 20 years has significantly reduced the risk of contracting pretty terrible diseases. Between 2003 and 2011, hospitals reported 37 cases of work-related fatalities from exposure to harmful substances — about 14 percent of all workplace deaths reported for hospitals during that time, according to OSHA. And in 2011, exposure to substances accounted for just about 4 percent of all hospital worker injuries resulting in days off.
There's also been a huge drop in the reported cases of occupational transmissions of hepatitis B since federal regulators issued guidelines nearly 25 years ago to stem the epidemic of infections among health-care workers. Cases of contracting hepatitis B on the job decreased from 17,000 cases in 1983 to 400 in 1995, and there were only 10 reported cases in 2010, according to a Public Citizen report.
The health-care industry has been even better at preventing HIV transmissions. There's been just 57 cases of documented transmissions and 143 possible transmissions of HIV to U.S. health-care workers on the job, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it's been about 15 years since a reported case, though the CDC said it's possible this could be because of underreporting. Again, the improvements are the result of better federal guidelines for limiting transmission risks on the job, as well as treatments when possible exposures occur.
But a comprehensive 2005 report from the World Health Organization painted a bit of a bleaker picture. The group at the time estimated 35 million people make up the global health workforce, with 2 million incidents each year of workers injured on the job by sharp instruments. Those incidents result in about 66,000 annual transmissions of hepatitis B, 16,000 of hepatitis C and about 1,000 HIV infections among health workers around the world each year, according to WHO estimates.