News & Events

Congress members share observations on issues of health and safety

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
March 2005 Edition

By Evelyn Bain, M Ed, RN, COHN-S
Associate Director/Coordinator, Health & Safety

The Congress on Health and Safety has been in place at the MNA since around 1999 but initiatives and committees to address health and safety predate the Congress by at least 10 years. As is usually the process that initiates change, more than 100 nurses were seriously affected by (poor) indoor air quality (IAQ) in the hospital where they worked. These MNA members recognized the need for activism and change related to the health and safety for themselves and fellow nurses. Their struggles and efforts planted the seeds from which the MNA’s Health and Safety Program in the Nursing Department has grown.

The Massachusetts Nurse, January/February 2005, featured a research project on this courageous group of nurses and the continuing effects exposures have had on their health and livelihood.

The following are brief interviews with the current members of the Congress. These members are representative of all members and others who have worked with the Congress and it’s related task forces; Workplace Violence and Abuse Prevention, Emergency Preparedness and Safe Patient Handling since the early 1990’s.

All MNA members are invited to attend Congress meetings which are held at MNA headquarters in Canton on the second Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. Members who are interested but have not been elected often attend and contribute to the discussions or simply learn about what is happening to improve working conditions for nurses. Those interested in attending should contact Evie Bain, the staff support person for the Congress (contact information appears on the Health and Safety page). Those members living outside the immediate Canton area can participate in meetings from their own homes through a conference call format.

Currently there are two vacancies on the Congress.

In the following commentary, members have identified their areas of interest in working with the Congress.

OSHA standards

Sandy LeBlanc is in her second term as chairperson of the Congress on Health and Safety. LeBlanc has been involved in many MNA Committees at the state level and in her local bargaining unit. She says her involvement in health and safety is "the simple, persistent, altruistic drive of nurses to make things better." She was encouraged to come and participate in a Congress meeting. After attending her first meeting, she was "in awe of the collective knowledge of the Congress members and staff" and immediately signed on.

LeBlanc feels she has instant access to information (OSHA sandards, etc.) that answer and resolve her questions about health and safety at work. She believes this access saves her from getting bogged down in the process of looking for health and safety answers. LeBlanc says "usually, one call or e-mail to a health and safety program staff member gets the response I need." Those replies identify the OSHA standard or NIOSH guideline that addresses her concern.

On a personal agenda, LeBlanc plans to involve the Congress members and MNA staff in developing a position statement Congress members share observations on issues of health and safety addressing On-Call practices and how On- Call relates to unsafe working conditions for nurses and others.

Hazard recognition

Terri Arthur has been involved with the Congress on Health and Safety since it’s inception in 1999. Arthur has served two terms as chairperson of the Congress and entered the Congress as a representative of the MNA Cabinet on Labor Relations.

Arthur believes that due to the multitude of hazardous conditions in healthcare, the industry remains as the last sweatshop in America. She knows nurses suffer from work related infectious diseases, musculoskeletal injuries and fatigue and stress related illness and injuries. While the solutions to these hazards are readily available most hospitals largely continue to ignore the preventive and protective measures.

Working on the Congress has provided her increased information and the ability to ascertain what is out there and where to find information and resources to correct these situations and ultimately solve problems. Arthur says "the Congress stacks your hands with information and resources to find solutions that are workable in the hospital environment."

Toxic environmental cleaning agents

Mary Bellistri has a long history of concern about issues that affect nurse’s health and safety at work. Mary is a member of both the Congress on Health and Safety and the Workplace Violence and Abuse Prevention Task Force.

Bellistri describes a health and safety issue where knowledge gained by being a Congress member came in handy.

Apparently a floor stripper was used in her hospital, causing an immediate reaction among nurses and patients alike. Two nurses were sent to the emergency room while other staff and patients experienced symptoms of dizziness, nausea and light headedness. She immediately wrote a letter describing the incident and then approached the nurses who experienced symptoms following the exposure. They all signed the letter and sent it to their nurse manager. The letter was then forwarded to nursing administration.

Bellistri and union representatives at her hospital contacted the MNA Health and Safety Program. They asked that the MNA go into their facility to address the concern about the use of certain environmental cleaning chemicals.

MNA and the union reps, along with Bellistri, developed a plan of action. The plan began by meeting with representatives from nursing administration, environmental services, the office of environmental health and safety along with an environmental health & safety consultant. This group held three meetings from January through May 2004. During that time the group reviewed health and safety concerns related to these cleaning chemicals, indoor air quality and operations. The review included facts about hospital floor care, product alternatives, selection process, scheduling, selection criteria, health effects, safety, availability, costs involved and ease of use. A new product was chosen, scheduled and results reported.

Said Bellistri, "Being a member of the Congress on Health and Safety is what made the difference. I would not have been so pro-active; I would not have taken action. It is because of what I learned from others on the Congress. Intuitively, as nurses, we know these chemicals are not good for you or your patients. I became introduced to information about how cleaning chemicals, like wax and floor strippers can cause sensitization and make you sick." With knowledge obtained from working on the Congress, Bellistri observed, "The bottom line was how could I not do anything? How could I stand there and let the hazardous chemicals jeopardize my health and the health of those around me."

Promoting health and safety in nursing journals

Gail Lenehan has also served on the Congress since its inception, acting as chairperson during one of her elected terms.

She said, "After I had a reaction to latex gloves at work, I called the MNA and spoke with the Associate Director in the newly created position of Health and Safety Specialist. I was so impressed with the responsiveness and immediate interest of not only Evie but the existing Health and Safety Committee I joined that impressive group of nurses and have been working with the Congress and on health and safety issues in general, ever since. Even in between my elected terms on the Congress, like others, I have continued to come to meetings and stay a part of one of the most admirable groups I have ever worked with.

"What I have learned from the Congress has been invaluable in helping me to inform the readers of a journal I am involved with, The Journal of Emergency Nursing. Evie and a number of nurses on the Congress have contributed excellent articles to that journal. In turn I have been able to share with editors of other journals what I have learned through the Congress, and in this way, the Congress has had an even more far reaching effect."

Needlestick/sharps injury prevention

Liz O’Connor became interested in Health and Safety after many of her colleagues became ill from exposure to (poor) indoor air quality.

O’Connor has shared her knowledge with nursing colleagues and the medical interns where she works by looking at their practices related to needlestick injury prevention. She recalls in horror watching a medical resident dump a tray of contaminated sharps in a wastebasket. O’Connor addressed this dangerous practice with the resident’s supervisor and corrective measures were instituted. She has also advocated for safe lifting devices, utilizing synthetic gloves to protect workers and patients from developing latex allergy and the resulting allergic reactions. Liz worked on committees within her hospital addressing these and other safety issues.

O’Connor has served as the MNA member representative to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Needlestick Injury (Prevention) Advisory Board, a board and position created by Massachusetts Legislature in 2000.

Environmental health and safety

Kathy Sperrazza became interested in health and safety after becoming ill from work related exposures and observing other nurses who became sick and injured on the job.

According to Sperrazza, the Congress is a great way to bring nurses interested in the health and safety of their colleagues and themselves together to identify what is really happening, how it can be addressed and how nurses can work collaboratively to change the culture that allows work related practices resulting in illnesses and injuries to continue.

"The research we are conducting through the Congress allows us to look at issues more closely. We need to discover what is causing nurses to become sick and injured and develop those interventions which will make health care as safe for workers as we expect it to be for patients," Sperrazza said.

Sperrazza participated in the meeting in 1997 that formalized Health Care Without Harm as an organization. Since that time, she has spoken at many meetings of state and local government as an advocate for Mercury reduction in hospitals and other healthcare and community settings. The mercury reduction campaign has been successful in Massachusetts and the MNA Congress on Health and Safety along with members’ involvement with Health Care Without Harm have played significant roles as advocates for this change.

Workers’ compensation

Janet Butler joined the MNA and the Congress after attending the program at MNA sponsored by a Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents, Applying OSHA to Healthcare Settings. Butler has worker safety and health and workers’ compensation responsibilities at her job, working in a home health agency.

After joining the MNA, Butler was elected to the Congress in 2003. She appreciates the opportunities that evolve through the Congress, including member’s involvement in the SEAK Workers’ Compensation Conference each year on Cape Cod. Participation in this conference lets members expand their knowledge in specific areas of work related injuries and illnesses and issues related to workers’ compensation insurance.

Legislation to protect nurses and other health care workers

Michael D’Intinosanto is known to MNA members for his long term activism and involvement with the Congress on Legislation and Health Policy. D’Intinosanto has supported and promoted legislation on health and safety in that role. He has worked on needlestick injury prevention efforts, workplace violence prevention and accountability for perpetrators of workplace violence at the state house and in his work setting.

Through his involvement with the Congress on Health and Safety, D’Intinosanto has brought information on TB testing protocols to his workplace and his efforts have benefited both his co-workers and the clients with whom he works.

Toxic environmental cleaning agents

Janet Reeves also became interested in health and safety after attending the program at MNA sponsored by a Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents, Applying OSHA to Healthcare Settings. Then, at the urging of her local union president, she filed a consent to serve form and was elected to the Congress on Health and Safety.

Reeves felt the information she has learned about the adverse health effect of environmental cleaning agents on the health and safety of nurses and their patients has been one of most easily identified hazards in her work environment. One day at work she noticed the toxic floor wax that had been often discussed at Congress meetings was being liberally sprayed on the floor and into the air on the unit where she was working. The odor was pungent and the adverse health effects were immediate, in both workers and patients. Reeves brought the issue to the attention of her supervisor and after careful explanation of what she had learned, the process was stopped.

Hazards of anti-neoplastic and other drugs

Mary Anne Dillon has long been an activist on issues of patient safety in her work setting. In 2003, she transferred her safety concerns to that of nurses and filed consent to serve form to stand for election to the Congress on Health and Safety.

Currently, Dillon is an MNA member representative to the OSHA/MNA/Mass. Division of Occupational Safety planning committee that is working to present educational seminars on preventing exposure to anti-neoplastic and other hazardous drugs. Dillon shared her enthusiasm and commitment to this project at a recent meeting of the group stating "History is being made in this project. Nurses health and safety is becoming a concern and protecting all healthcare workers is becoming a reality."

Members of the MNA Workplace Violence Task Force will be interviewed for the April issue of the Massachusetts Nurse.