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“COVID captains” keep the focus on safe work practices

By Dan Scungio

The year 2020 has roared to a close, and COVID-19 is unfortunately still around. We have made changes to our lives at home, in public, and at work. Healthcare workers, in particular, made several changes early on with PPE use and work practices that are still in effect today. A great deal of work had to be done early on this year to provide information to staff in healthcare facilities regarding this updated safety information.
At this point, the initial work that needed to be done by safety professionals has been completed. Employees have been educated regarding the continued use of Standard Precautions and how they create protection from pathogens every day. However, as can happen with safety programs, staff become tired of following the regulations, they become complacent, and they don’t understand the reasons behind all of the changes in safety practices.
Staff exposure

Masking in the workplace, social distancing, not eating together in break rooms, and wearing additional PPE are just some of the changes that have been put in place. People are becoming weary of these practices, and many employees no longer wish to comply. Unfortunately, this lack of compliance has created an increase in staff exposure to COVID-19, and much of that exposure is occurring on the job.
The work of the healthcare safety professional is not over. Although staff may be tired of continuing some of the practices that have been implemented, they must be reminded that they were implemented for their protection and for the continued operation of their departments.
Community exposure to the coronavirus is also affecting the workplace. Infected or exposed employees must now be quarantined and off the schedule for a long period of time. Typically, an employee will report an issue to Employee Health once they become symptomatic. But what if a co-worker was with them a day or two before with no PPE? That’s too late, isn’t it? Close, unprotected contact with that infected person will mean that the co-worker may become infected as well. It can also create the need to quarantine even if the co-worker doesn’t become ill.

Safety guidelines

These scenarios can be prevented if staff continue to follow the updated safety guidelines that have been put into practices in our workplaces this year. Regular reminders about this are necessary.
One hospital system in the country has instituted the use of what they call “COVID Captains” at their facilities. The hospitals are cancer treatment centers, and every patient they have in their buildings throughout the country is immunocompromised. They cannot have employees let down their guard and contract the virus while treating this patient population. The “Captains” monitor PPE and safety practice compliance on each campus, and they educate staff about community exposure prevention as well. Because of their vigilance, they have had no coronavirus exposures with their staff to date. That’s very impressive.
Should there be “COVID Captains” in your workplace also? The pandemic continues, and the safety of healthcare workers and the patients they serve has never been more important. Continue to educate your staff about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread at home and at work. Wal around and make sure the correct masks and face protection are in use. Keep people apart as much as possible, and if that isn’t possible, make sure PPE or engineering controls are in place.

PPE shortages

PPE supply shortages still linger for many healthcare facilities, and as the pandemic continues, more purchasing limitations are expected. The CDC already posted guidelines which can help organizations optimize the use of current PPE supplies. Strategies such as prolonged PPE use and disinfection are just some possibilities that can help ( As we move into the new year, consider purchasing more reusable PPE. Reusable goggles and face shields are offered by many manufacturers. Washable lab coats and gowns can also be purchased, although it may take a while to get the supplies because of high demand. Because of continued shortages, the reprocessing of N95 respirators has become more common using hydrogen peroxides mists or UV lights.

While we might be happy to see this unusual year come to a close, for that sake of safety, we still have to remain vigilant. One lesson learned is that we have to be ready for the unexpected. Our safety programs need to be diverse and able to keep staff safe in many circumstances. If we use the resources and tools available to us, we can work through the next year smoothly and safely.

By continuing to monitor safe practices and providing on-going education, we can keep the staff we have and be prepared to serve those patients who are in need during the pandemic.

Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) is laboratory safety officer for Sentara Healthcare Virginia and North Carolina. As Dan the Lab Safety Man, he also serves as a laboratory safety trainer, speaker and consultant. Email:













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