Health workers don’t feel work environment is safe enough, survey finds

Clinicians and administrators say the pandemic is affecting their sense of safety, and dealing with medical waste adds to the stress, according to a report by Stericycle.

Most healthcare leaders have cited burnout among staff during the COVID-19 pandemic as one of their key concerns, but a recent survey suggests an area that merits more attention: safety.

For many healthcare workers, their stress relates to the safety of their work environment, according to a report by Stericycle, an Illinois-based company offering solutions for handling waste and information destruction.

The survey, like other studies, found most workers are experiencing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. The poll found 72% are feeling stress and burnout during the pandemic, and 71% said the pandemic has affected their sense of safety at work.

Most said safety issues, including the improper disposal of medical waste, affects the health of patients and raises risks to healthcare providers.

Jim Anderson, Stericycle’s vice president of product management and innovation, said his biggest takeaway from the survey “is how much safety is impacting the current healthcare provider experience.”

“Burnout is pervasive, and while things like understaffing and incredible patient volumes are certainly getting the most attention as reasons for that burnout, our survey found an underlying issue: Healthcare providers do not feel their work environments are safe enough to do their jobs efficiently and effectively,” Anderson told Chief Healthcare Executive.

“This directly impacts their ability to provide quality patient care,” he said. “These findings reinforce the importance of healthcare organizations prioritizing strategies to improve the health and safety of the care environments they’re providing.”

The survey found consistent concerns about handling medical waste or biohazardous waste, such as waste contaminated by blood, bodily fluids or other infectious materials, along with needles or bandages.

Stericycle surveyed 500 healthcare professionals, including 350 clinicians and 150 administrators. The survey revealed some differences of opinion between healthcare providers and administrators.

The poll found 75% of respondents said their organizations were doing enough to reduce environmental impacts through managing biohazardous waste appropriately, but only 54% of providers said they feel that way. Similarly, 78% of administrators said they had innovative practices to handle biohazardous waste, a sentiment shared by only 56% of providers.

Both clinicians and administrators overwhelmingly said improper biohazardous waste disposal takes a toll on providers. Over 70% of both clinicians and administrators said improper biohazardous waste disposal affects patient safety and puts the physical safety of providers at risk.

A majority of providers and administrators (56% and 57%, respectively) said their organizations should increase financial resources toward biohazarous waste disposal.

“Medical waste storage is not often top of mind -- and on one hand, that is the way we want it to be, because it's a sign we are doing something right,” Anderson said.

“But on the other, this survey shows that it’s incredibly impactful for patients and providers, so it should be an important concern in healthcare settings," he said. "If medical waste service is improperly managed, this represents a huge risk to patients, clinicians, the general public, and even to our waterways and our environment.”

More than 80% of clinicians and administrators said disposing of biohazardous waste improperly adversely affects the emotional well-being of providers. Nearly 70% of clinicians and administrators said improper biohazardous waste disposal contributes to provider fatigue and burnout.

Roughly three out of four respondents said the COVID-19 pandemic has made proper management of drugs more challenging. That sentiment was shared equally between providers and administrators.

A majority of respondents said improperly disposed of pharmaceutical waste, such as unused or expired medications, is one of the biggest contributors to the opioid epidemic.

“As the pandemic has overshadowed a lot of healthcare issues, the report was an important reminder that the opioid crisis is still raging,” Anderson said.

The report also highlighted an area Anderson described as one that is overlooked when it comes to medical waste: the home. With more healthcare being provided at home, proper disposal of medical waste is critical.

Roughly 1 in 4 providers (26%) who have provided care in the home said they don’t feel confident they know how to safely dispose of medical waste. The survey said 85% of providers said disposing medical waste at home properly is challenging and poses risk to their health.

More than 90% of clinicians and administrators said providers need more logistical support to provide the best possible care at home.

“Healthcare organizations should offer more provider training so they can educate their patients, as well as offer sharps mail-back programs to keep patients safe and reduce the risk of needlestick injuries,” Anderson said.