Home > Health & Safety > Workplace Exposures

What are occupational or workplace exposures?

Occupational or workplace exposures occur when members work with or around chemical, biological, and physical hazards in the workplace that can cause an adverse health effect such as an acute or chronic illness, or death.

Why are workplace exposures important to the BCNU?

Frontline healthcare workers encounter a wide variety of chemical, physical, and biological hazards in their work. These include:

  • Chemical hazards, such as pesticides, chemotherapy drugs, and cleaning products
  • Biological hazards, such as a virus or bacteria transmitted a variety of ways including through blood and body fluid splashes, needlesticks, or coughs and sneezes
  • Physical hazards, such as ionizing radiation, noise, and substances like asbestos
Exposures can result in acute illness; or, the consequence of exposure may not become evident for decades. From 2006 – 2010, WorkSafeBC accepted over 700 claims for nurses who were injured and disabled from work due to workplace exposures. Nurses have died from occupational diseases due to workplace exposures.

What is required for prevention?

In accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, where there is a risk of exposure to a chemical, biological or physical hazard, the employer has a responsibility to eliminate the exposure, or control it below harmful levels, and implement exposure control plans (ECPs). ECPs document the risks, and measures to eliminate or minimize them. Plans also include provisions for education of workers, written work procedures, hygiene facilities, and health monitoring. All of this is to be done in consultation with the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees.

How is the BCNU involved?

Thanks to effective campaigning and lobbying by BCNU members and others, the rules to protect against a number of workplace exposures have improved. For example,

  • In 2008, safety engineered medical sharps became a requirement of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation. BCNU pushed for the change because some 6,800 workers in BC health care are stuck by a sharp or needle each year.
  • BCNU’s campaign on the safe handling of cytotoxins led to the current section of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, Cytotoxic Drugs, Part 6.42. This regulation addresses all the areas of concern raised by nurses throughout BC for so many years.
  • BCNU sounded the alarm about exposure to cancer-causing agents in health care workplaces, and worked with the Labour Environmental Alliance Society to produce a series of papers [PDF Format] on workplace toxins.
The BCNU Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) department works with Joint OH&S Committee members, stewards and employers to ensure that employers and members are aware of the risks, and preventative measures, for workplace exposures.

For more information

Occupational Health and Safety Regulation:

WorkSafeBC Injury Prevention Resources for Health Care: A comprehensive list of OH&S resources has been published by the Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare in BC (OHSAH), and is now available for free download.

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