Needlestick injuries can kill, but the extra cost of safety needles means trusts have been slow to adopt them. Colin Wright reports

Needles are disposable, but people are not.’ Jim Devine, Unison’s head of health in Scotland, is pushing this stark warning in an attempt to reduce the toll of disease and even death caused by accidents at work involving syringes.

Up to 200,000 healthcare staff every year are injured by the needles they use to treat patients.

Safety needles, which would prevent this, cost only 35p each. But at double the cost of normal syringes, they are not widely used. Now Unison is highlighting two deaths caused by needlestick injuries and calling for the introduction of safety needles across the NHS.

The issue has come to the fore in recent months, with Unison identifying five healthcare workers who have contracted HIV from needlestick injuries and two who subsequently died.

Unison says student nurse Jane Robinson died in 1996 as a result of a needlestick injury she received while working in a hospital pathology department. She received£187,000 compensation, which Mr Devine says is derisory.

‘All healthcare staff run a daily risk of such an injury and the potential to become infected with HIV. We believe that the two deaths and five HIV staff will not, unfortunately, be the last as long as safety syringes remain outside the NHS.

‘We also believe that subsequent compensation payments will be considerably larger than that given to Jane Robinson.’

Bernard Scully, director of human resources and internal communications at South Glasgow University Hospitals trust, has been collating figures for needlestick injuries for nearly five years. He says accurate information is needed on the level of injuries.

‘We cannot address the problem appropriately if we don’t have sufficient information. At present it costs the trust around£1,000 per injury, assuming there is no real hurt to the individual. That is about£700 for personal injury compensation - for pain and suffering - and around£250 for legal fees.

‘However, it only takes one individual to contract HIV from a needlestick injury - the figure could be anything and will cause real problems for a trust.

‘I believe there is an awareness of the potential seriousness that needlestick injuries pose for trusts, but there needs to be action on the introduction of a suitable, cost-effective product.’

The number of incidents reported by the trust to the Health and Safety Executive has tripled over the past seven years.

Mr Scully says: ‘There are huge resource implications surrounding these issues as, in this increasingly litigious age, staff may start to make claims against the trust.’

Unison is holding an awareness event in the next fortnight at South Glasgow University Hospitals trust’s Southern General Hospital, to highlight the need for adequate reporting of needlestick injuries and the campaign to introduce safety syringes in the NHS.

The first study into the use of safety syringes has already been completed at West Lothian Healthcare trust. According to a leaked report by trust director of nursing Elizabeth Campbell for Scottish health minister Susan Deacon: ‘The evaluation indicates ‘good’ or ‘very good’ acceptance and effectiveness on all criteria with one notable exception, that of ability to activate the safety mechanism on full delivery of the contents of the syringe, where 47 per cent scored ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.’

The report goes on to recommend a larger trial but does say: ‘The advantage of a safety device such as this has been recognised and once refinements have taken place, it will be a significant part of any needlestick prevention strategy.’

But at£176,000 a year, Ms Campbell believes the syringes would be prohibitively expensive.

The report therefore recommends not introducing safety needles at present.

Mr Devine says: ‘This is a very imbalanced report as it does not include the cost savings which will occur if safety syringes are introduced and the number of needlestick injuries is reduced by 90 per cent. We are writing to Ms Deacon, asking to discuss this.

‘We have also been in touch with the Health and Safety Executive and we believe we have a case to raise under new guidelines, which are about to be issued by the Scottish Executive, which state that if a safer system is known about and can be implemented, all trusts must implement it.’

A Scottish Executive spokesperson says: ‘We are aware of the West Lothian pilot study, but that is only one report and we have not ruled anything out at this stage.’ A working group has been set up to consider the issue.

As Mr Devine explains: ‘We have estimated that 200,000 health workers a year get a needlestick injury and are currently working in an environment which would be illegal in the US.

‘We have estimated that follow-up costs on needlestick injuries in Scotland cost the NHS£5.5m a year and that the additional costs of introducing safety syringes are more than offset by the savings which would be made if there were fewer injuries.

‘We are calling for the Scottish Parliament to act on this with some urgency.’

Mr Scully believes the NHS is ‘crying out for a safe, cost-effective syringe’.

‘There will always be needlestick injuries, but what we must do is introduce a system which can at least prevent the avoidable injuries. You can reduce the numbers of injuries caused by poor working practices, such as clinical staff putting needles into over-full sharps boxes or leaving them in bedclothes. But there are other incidents which could only be prevented by the introduction of safety syringes.’