Reducing Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Drugs

February 2016 - Vol.13 No. 2 - Page #10
Categories: Accreditation Survey Consulting, Closed System Drug-Transfer Devices (CSTDs), PPE/Garb & Gloves

Q&A with Seth Eisenberg, RN, OCN, BMTCN

Pharmacy Purchasing & Products: How should an organization approach staff training for safe handling of hazardous drugs (HDs)?

Seth Eisenberg: Prior to HD training, conduct a gap analysis to assess the current state of practice and compare that to the organization’s policies and procedures and to best practices. Ideally, this should be performed by both pharmacy and nursing representatives who are most familiar with workflow and existing practices. Identifying the organization’s current practice prior to training staff will help isolate key areas on which to focus. Because safety measures often require workflow changes, having an accurate understanding of the current state is vital before requiring staff to adopt different practices.

Defining why HDs are designated hazardous is a prerequisite to initiating all training activities for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and nurses. To assist in this endeavor, over the past three decades, a wealth of studies have been amassed that illustrate the health risks of improper HD handling, how environmental contamination may occur, and how that contamination can result in employee exposure. Introduce the most critical data from landmark HD studies to all staff who comes into contact with HDs (see SIDEBAR). Salient points to cover include:

  • HD exposure can occur from the moment the vials first arrive in the facility, as the vial exteriors are most likely contaminated
  • HD contamination can spread easily throughout the health care environment in the same way that viruses or other pathogens can spread
  • Dermal absorption of HDs is the most common route of possible exposure, although aerosolization and vaporization also can occur during compounding and after a spill
  • Absorption of HDs results in measurable levels that are excreted in the urine
  • A number of adverse effects, particularly reproductive issues, are associated with exposure to HDs
  • Proper handling techniques and employing the right equipment can significantly reduce the potential for exposure

After this information is presented, it is important to discuss what has been learned as a result of that research, with an emphasis on employing the necessary precautions and equipment (eg, the use of personal protective equipment [PPE] and closed system drug-transfer devices [CSTDs]) throughout the HD administration process.

When presented with the risks of HD exposure, this data may elicit various responses from staff. New oncology nurses may be shocked, which is not surprising given that little HD safety information is included in nursing school curricula. More seasoned oncology staff may bring up how chemotherapy was mixed and administered in the past and dismiss current HD exposure risks as exaggerated. Discussing the myriad studies that illustrate the real danger of HD exposure in the workplace can help reinforce the critical nature of HD precautions, including PPE and CSTD use, and help gain staff buy-in to adhere to safe practices.

Newly published data continue to demonstrate the prevalence of environmental contamination. For example, a 2014 study showed for the first time that hand contamination is problematic for a broader range of health care workers than previously believed, including those who do not directly handle or administer antineoplastic drugs (eg, unit clerks, aides, dieticians, and those working in shipping and receiving).1 Using a combination of historical and new data in the staff education process helps bring perspective to the problem, and reinforces the importance of safe practices.

In addition, it is vital for organizations to ensure that the PPE being utilized when handling HDs meets the guidelines set forth by NIOSH and the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). (For more information, see PP&P’s January 2015 article, Are Gloves and Gowns Safe for Handling Chemotherapy?) Moreover, staff must understand that all safety equipment available must be employed every time an HD is compounded, administered, or handled. Using some, but not all, of the safety equipment available is insufficient for preventing exposure.

PP&P: How should pharmacy and nursing work together to reduce occupational exposure to HDs?

Eisenberg: Ideally, HD training should be interdisciplinary. It makes little sense, for example, if pharmacy employs strict HD safety procedures for compounding but nursing does not consistently wear gowns and gloves or use a CSTD during drug administration.

Working collaboratively, pharmacy and nursing can attack the challenge using a unified approach. Developing an HD work group comprising members that represent all areas of the facility affected by HDs (including housekeeping) allows input from all stakeholders and helps identify obstacles in all departments that may come into contact with HDs. Although pharmacy’s needs differ from nursing, the HD handling approach should consign an equal degree of importance to safety for both departments. In particular, when choosing and implementing a CSTD, both pharmacy and nursing must provide input and work together to identify a viable device.

PP&P: How can an organization ensure that safe HD practices continue over time?

Eisenberg: Monitoring is required to ensure compliance when changes have been implemented in an HD safety program. If the gap analysis shows that an improved HD safety program—one vastly different from current practice—is required, there will be resistance to change. Enlisting key clinical nursing leaders can help set an example and ensure all staff members are following HD safety procedures. These leaders should include nursing managers, as it has been shown that compliance is linked to an organization’s safety culture, as well as to practice at the patient’s bedside.2

ONS recommends that safe handling education and compliance auditing occur annually.3 After conducting appropriate staff education, perform audits to reduce the likelihood of practice drift over time. Practice drift can occur weeks to months after education, as staff becomes less diligent and the potential to revert back to pre-existing workflow habits grows. For this reason, periodic audits must continue well beyond the initiation of education. Another benefit of long-term, intermittent audits is that they keep the topic of safety consistently at the forefront. Conversely, a lack of follow-up after implementation may send the message that HD safety is no longer important within the organization.

PP&P: What do nurses need to know about USP <800>?

Eisenberg: Because USP is a pharmacy-centric organization, most nurses may not be familiar with the existence of USP Chapter <800> Hazardous Drugs—Handling in Healthcare Settings. Moreover, the fact that USP is mandating how nurses administer HDs (such as the requirement that nurses, or any other personnel, use CSTDs when administering HDs) is likely to raise many questions. Pharmacy must provide comprehensive information detailing the changes that USP <800> will require. Requirements will include double gloving with chemotherapy-tested gloves, single-use chemotherapy-tested gowns, education for staff responsible for HD transport, and the use of CSTDs (ie, USP <800> will recommend CSTD use during drug preparation and require CSTD use during drug administration). While all of these have been recommended by NIOSH and ONS, USP <800> establishes specific required criteria (eg, chemotherapy-tested gloves and gowns). The use of a CSTD will likely be the most significant condition, as it will necessitate that institutions invest in safety components, which have, up until the present time, been recommended but not required.

In addition, because state boards of pharmacy will enforce USP <800>, pharmacy should ensure that nurses have a clear understanding of the impact of being subject to an enforcement body. Penalties for violations will vary depending on each state’s board of pharmacy, but citations for USP <800> violations can be issued, as can occur with USP <797>. While nurses usually are familiar with NIOSH and ONS guidelines, neither of these organizations have enforcement abilities. USP <800> ushers in a new era of accountability, heretofore belonging to each state’s department of health or to The Joint Commission.


  1. Hon CY, Teschke K, Demers PA, et al. Antineoplastic drug contamination on the hands of employees working throughout the hospital medication system. Ann Occup Hyg. 2014;58(6):761-770.
  2. Polovich M, Clark PC. Factors influencing oncology nurses’ use of hazardous drug safe-handling precautions. Onc Nurs Forum. 2012;39(3):E299-309.
  3. Polovich M, Olsen MM, LeFebvre KB, eds. Chemotherapy and Biotherapy Guidelines and Recommendations for Practice. 4th Edition. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2014.

Seth Eisenberg, RN, OCN, BMTCN, professional practice coordinator for infusion services at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Ambulatory Clinic, has worked in the field of oncology since 1983. His experience includes 30 years in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation associated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.


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*A more extensive listing of recent publications related to occupational exposure to antineoplastic agents and other hazardous drugs, including guidelines, recommendations, regulations, review articles, and surveys, is available at:


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