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Sharps injuries

Sharps injuries are a well-known risk in the health and social care sector. Sharps contaminated with an infected patient's blood can transmit more than 20 diseases, including hepatitis B, C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Because of this transmission risk, sharps injuries can cause worry and stress to the many thousands who receive them.

What you need to know

What are sharps?

'Sharps' are needles, blades (such as scalpels) and other medical instruments that are necessary for carrying out healthcare work and could cause an injury by cutting or pricking the skin.

What is a sharps injury?

A sharps injury is an incident, which causes a needle, blade (such as scalpel) or other medical instruments to penetrate the skin. This is sometimes called a percutaneous injury.

What to do if you receive a sharps injury

If you suffer an injury from a sharp which may be contaminated:

  • Encourage the wound to gently bleed, ideally holding it under running water
  • Wash the wound using running water and plenty of soap
  • Don't scrub the wound whilst you are washing it
  • Don't suck the wound
  • Dry the wound and cover it with a waterproof plaster or dressing
  • Seek urgent medical advice (for example from your Occupational Health Service) as effective prophylaxis (medicines to help fight infection) are available
  • Report the injury to your employer.

What is the risk?

The main risk from a sharps injury is the potential exposure to infections such as blood-borne viruses (BBV). This can occur where the injury involves a sharp that is contaminated with blood or a bodily fluid from a patient. The blood-borne viruses of most concern are:

The transmission of infection depends on a number of factors, including the person's natural immune system. We know the number of injuries each year is high, but only a small number are known to have caused infections that led to serious illness. However, the effects of the injury and anxiety about its potential consequences, including the adverse side effects of post-exposure prophylaxis can have a significant personal impact on an injured employee.

Who is at risk?

Workers and others in health and social care are at risk. This includes those who directly handle sharps but also includes workers who may inadvertently be put at risk when sharps are not stored or disposed of correctly.

There is a higher risk of infection from a sharps injury involving hollow-bore needles. Higher risk procedures include intra-vascular cannulation, venepuncture and injections and use of IV cannulae, winged steel-butterfly-needles, needles and syringes and phlebotomy needles.

What the law says

Health and safety law applies to risks from sharps injuries, just as it does to other risks from work activities. Relevant legislation includes:

Health and Safety (Sharp Instruments in Healthcare) Regulations 2013

These Regulations will implement the EU Council Directive 2010/32/EU on the prevention of sharps injuries in the hospital and healthcare sector. Many of the requirements contained in the Directive already formed part of health and safety law in Great Britain. The new regulations only contain those requirements that are not specifically addressed in existing legislation, as listed above.

The Regulations only apply to employers, contractors and workers in the healthcare sector. NHS Trusts/Boards, independent healthcare businesses and other employers whose main activity is the management, organisation and provision of healthcare will be subject to the Regulations.

HSE has produced Health Services Information Sheet 7 - Health and Safety (Sharps Instruments in Healthcare) Regulations 2013 to provide guidance on how to comply with the Regulations.

Updated 2013-06-04