Imagine you work in a radioactive lab and one of your co-workers trips and falls with a tray full of radioactive liquids. Unfortunately, they wound up knocking their head hard on the sharp edge of a counter on their way down. So, in addition to the radioactive spill, the individual is unconscious, with a serious head laceration and their entire front is contaminated with radioactive liquid. Or, imagine a similar scenario where the individual falls as the result of a cardiac arrest.
Sometimes those who work in radioactive careers focus so much on how to clean up spills or decontaminate people, they forget that the crossover of contamination + serious injury could lead to a situation where the EMTs and/or hospital staff refuse to treat/admit the patient due to the contamination factor.
What do you do if an employee is seriously injured and contaminated
Unfortunately, we’ve heard all too many stories of those who were refused critical medical treatment because the emergency response team and/or the admitting hospital weren’t prepared for minor radioactive contamination. This situation is completely avoidable if you are prepared.
Always wear and/or utilize proper protective clothing and radiation shielding
The first step to avoiding contamination in any situation is to use best practices and ensure employees wear adequate protective clothing in combination with proper shielding equipment. When this has been addressed, all other risks are minimized significantly.
Have the Radiation Safety Officer contact local emergency response teams and the nearest admitting hospital(s)
Accidents happen despite all the best preparation and protection, so have a proactive approach with the local emergency response teams as well as the nearest admitting hospitals.
Set up a meeting between the Radiation Safety Officer and relevant personnel so an actionable plan is put in place. Unless your lab or place of business is in near a major trauma center, there’s a chance the hospital isn’t as prepared as they think for “smaller” nuclear disasters.
Ask if the emergency response teams and local hospital staff are prepared to admit a patient contaminated with radiation. This is their opportunity to create a protocol if there isn’t one, or to run through an existing protocol so they’re prepared in the event of your emergency. Also, reinforce that there is almost no scenario in most medical, industrial or research settings that would lead to contamination severe enough to post a risk to medical caregivers.
Medical professionals will appreciate this heads-up approach, and that proactive move may just save a life if you wind up needing their services. Know that you might end up being the educators if they aren’t quite sure how to handle the situation.
What to do in case of a medical emergency when a co-worker is contaminated
Keep in mind that for most “medical emergencies” the first few minutes are critical. If medical attention isn’t available within that time, the patient can suffer or a life may be lost unnecessarily. Practice and reinforcement of your company’s safety protocol is time well spent.
- Call 9-1-1 and be clear about the situation so emergency personnel can prepare themselves en route, rather than after they arrive.
- Call the hospital where the patient will be admitted, giving them clear warning as to the type of contamination it is and how they can best protect themselves while administering medical care. Remind them that while proper precautions are important, the contamination does not pose a serious threat to their employees. In the meantime, anything they can do to cover the floor of the admitting area/room with non-slip plastic will be effective. Surfaces (including lights and trays) can also be covered in plastic, as can any equipment that will come in contact with the patient.
- As with any medical emergency, focus should be on stabilizing the patient. The ambulance interior and medical equipment can all be decontaminated by your team or theirs after the fact. As long as emergency personnel are wearing gloves, masks, safety goggles and booties, they should remain contamination free. If there is time to cover the surfaces of the ambulance interior with clear plastic, that’s great, but not at the expense of treating the patient.
- If there is time and the situation permits (or warrants it) you can remove the patient’s outer garments, which should eliminate as much as 75% of the contamination. You can also wash them down with warm water and a soft sponge (again, only if time permits). Then, wrap the patient in a blanket or a Tyvek or disposable “bunny suit.”
- Finally, radioactive measurements should be taken in the ambulance, the ER room and areas where the patient spent time to ensure they are radiation free. If not, these areas should be decontaminated accordingly.
Fortunately, most contamination – if any – that spreads from a radioactive patient to emergency and/or medical personnel is very minimal and is easily taken care of using warm water and soap.
By taking time now to prepare for the future, your employees will be in much better and more competent hands in the rare case of a medical emergency involving radiation contamination.
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