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Kaiser hospital in Vallejo fined $150,000 after workers stabbed by needles that were unsafely discarded

At least three custodial employees over the past three years have been stuck by needles while emptying the hospital’s collection box.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Kaiser Foundation Hospitals in Vallejo, California were recently cited by Cal/OSHA for safety violations after inadequate safety practices resulted in workers being stabbed by needles on multiple occasions.

The hospital was cited $149,900 and has since put safeguards in place to prevent further incidents.

At least three custodial employees over the past three years have been stuck by needles while emptying the hospital's collection box for biomedical waste. The box was reportedly prone to overflowing, preventing the lid from closing properly. Two of those incidents occurred this year, prompting a call to OSHA in June.

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All three employees have been given preventive medication to ward off any health consequences.

"Cal/OSHA will always issue citations in cases where employers willfully disregard employee health and safety," said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum in a statement. "Kaiser should have had safety measures in place before employees were injured."

In all, Kaiser was cited for five workplace safety violations of the bloodborne pathogens standard, which requires employers to protect workers from coming into contact with blood or other disease-carrying bodily fluids. Two of those violations were classified as "willful serious" -- meaning evidence showed the hospital was aware of an issue, but essentially did nothing to rectify it.

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The hazardous conditions were corrected after the inspection.

"Hospital workers are exposed to known hazards on a daily basis, and their employers have a responsibility to recognize these hazards and protect their employees," said Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations -- of which Cal/OSHA is a part -- in a statement.

Kaiser employees deposit used needles through a hinged slot on a metal box resembling a postal mailbox; the needles then fall into an inner disposal box designed to contain biomedical waste. The contents were then transferred into a larger disposal container for collection by the hospital's waste hauling contractor.

[Also: Massachusetts HIPAA fine shows the financial risk in healthcare breaches ]

What Cal/OSHA investigators learned was that the box was typically cleaned using a broom and dustpan, and when those tools proved inadequate, employees had to reach into the box to remove spilled waste, even though needles were often deposited without a protective cap.

Kaiser replaced the kiosk with two larger disposal units after the inspection. The units are now monitored every 30 minutes.

Kaiser Permanente media relations specialist Deniene Erickson said in an email Friday that the safety of employees is a priority.

Prior to the investigation, she said, "Kaiser Permanente Vallejo was already actively addressing this matter, including purchasing larger and better designed kiosks for the safe storage and disposal of sharps collected from the public. We have since taken further action to protect our staff, including providing employees with additional training and replacing their protective gear."

She said no injuries have been reported since the installation of the new kiosks.

Twitter: @JELagasse