Opioid exposure a real work risk for nurses

Pill bottle
Photo: Flickr frankieleon / Creative Commons

The national opioid epidemic has a very real and direct consequence for registered nurses:

Patients using opioids who are brought into hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings could expose RNs and other healthcare workers to dangerous and potentially fatal concentrations of these chemical compounds.

That’s exactly what happened this August at Affinity Medical Center in Massillon, Ohio. A patient arrived unconscious from an apparent drug overdose.  After treating the patient, one nurse started feeling ill. Another nurse started caring for the first nurse, then started feeling dizzy, hot, and nauseous. One collapsed.  Both nurses ended up needing to be administered opioid antidote; one nurse required 14 milligrams of Narcan to reverse the effects of the exposure. In comparison, a typical dose of Narcan is about 0.5 milligrams. Observers of this incident surmise that the nurses had had passive exposure to a substance called carfentanil, an analog of fentanyl which is 10,000 more powerful than morphine.  “She was very sick. If it were not for the quick actions of her coworkers this could have been far more serious,” said Michelle Mahon, RN and staff labor representative for Affinity. “She required immediate medical attention.”

National Nurses United is extremely concerned about the occupational hazards these types of drugs pose for nurses and is educating RN members about the substances, routes of exposure, symptoms, and what responsibilities employers have to put a plan in place to protect workers against exposure. NNU’s Joint Nursing Practice Commission (JNPC) is developing a practice alert on the topic and will publish it when finalized.

“Nurses should be aware of this risk of exposure,” said Cokie Giles, RN and NNU vice president who acts as board liaison to the JNPC. “Now is the time to assess employer readiness by requesting information on the current protocols in place and equipment available.” To get the latest information about being prepared for potential opioid exposure as well as other information related to the JNPC and NNU’s efforts to protect nurses at work, sign up for our health and safety newsletter by joining the campaign at this website: —Staff report