LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Identify patient safety concerns in a medical treatment facility.

The primary goal of the healthcare provider is maintaining, sustaining, restoring, and rehabilitating a physical or psychological function of the patient. To achieve this goal, healthcare facilities and providers are charged with developing policies and implementing mechanisms that ensure safe, efficient, and therapeutically effective care. The theme of this discussion is safety and will address the major aspects of both environmental and personal safety.


For purposes ofthis discussion, the environment is defined as the physical surroundings of the patient and includes such things as lighting, equipment, supplies, chemicals, architectural structure, and the activities of both patient and staff personnel. Maintaining safety becomes even more difficult when working with people who are ill or anxious and who cannot exercise their usual control over their environment. Loss of strength, decreased sensory input, and disability often accompany illness. Because of this, you must be constantly alert and responsive to maintaining a safe environment.

Both JCAHO and the National Safety Council of the American Hospital Association (AHA) have identified four major types of accidents that continually occur to patients. These hazards consist of falls, electrical shocks, physical and chemical burns, and fire and explosions.

Patient Fall Precautions

The most basic of hospital equipment, the patient’s bed, is a common cause of falls. Falls occur among oriented patients getting in and out of bed at night in situations where there is inadequate lighting. Falls occur among disoriented or confused bed patients when bedrails are not used or are used improperly. Slippery or cluttered floors contribute to patient, staff, and even visitor falls. Patients with physical limitations or patients being treated with sensory-altering medications fall when attempting to ambulate without proper assistance. Falls result from running in passageways, carelessness when going around blind corners, and collisions between personnel and equipment. Unattended and improperly secured patients fall from gurneys and wheelchairs.

Healthcare personnel can do much to prevent the incidence of falls by following some simple procedures. These preventive measures include properly using side rails on beds, gurneys, and cribs; locking the wheels of gurneys and wheelchairs when transferring patients; and not leaving patients unattended. Safety straps must also be used to secure patients on gurneys or in wheelchairs. Maintaining dry and uncluttered floors markedly reduces the number of accidental falls. Patients with physical or sensory deficiencies should always be assisted during ambulation. Patients using crutches, canes, or walkers must receive adequate instructions in the proper use of these aids before being permitted to ambulate independently. The total care environment must be equipped with adequate night lights to assist orientation and to prevent falls resulting from an inability to see.

Electrical Safety Precautions

The expanded variety, quantity, and complexity of electrical and electronic equipment used for diagnostic and therapeutic care has markedly increased the hazards of burns, shock, explosions, and fire. It is imperative that healthcare providers at all levels be alert to such hazards and maintain an electrically safe environment. Knowledge and adherence to the following guidelines will contribute significantly to providing an electrically safe environment for all personnel, whether they be patients, staff, or visitors.

Since accidents resulting in physical and chemical burns have initiated numerous consumer claims of healthcare provider and facility malpractice, all healthcare personnel must be thoroughly indoctrinated in the proper use of equipment, supplies, and chemicals.

Physical and Chemical Burn Precautions

The following discussion will address common causes and precautions to be taken to eliminate the occurrence of burn injuries.

HOT WATER BOTTLES.—A common cause of burns—particularly in the elderly, diabetics, and patients with circulatory impairments—is the hot water bottle. When you are filling the bottle, the water temperature must never exceed 125°F (51 °C). Test the bottle for leaks and cover it so that there is a protective layer of cloth between the patient and the bottle itself.

HEATING PADS.—Heating pads present a dual hazard of potential burns and electrical shock. The precautions that should be taken when using heating pads are the same ones that should be used for hot water bottles: temperature control and protective cloth padding. Precautions you should observe to avoid shock include properly maintaining the equipment; conducting pre-use inspections; testing the equipment for wiring and plug defects; and ensuring periodic safety inspections are conducted by Medical Repair personnel.

ICE BAGS OR COLD PACKS.—Like hot water bottles, ice bags and cold packs (packaged chemical coolant) can cause skin-contact burns. This kind of burn is commonly referred to as local frostbite. The precautions taken for applying ice bags and cold baths are the same as those for hot water bottles with regard to attention to elderly, diabetic, and patients with circulatory impairments.

HYPOTHERMIA BLANKETS.—Like ice bags, hypothermia blankets can also cause contact burns. When using hypothermia blankets, check the patient’s skin frequently for signs of marked discoloration (indicating indirect localized tissue damage). Ensure that the bare blanket does not come in direct contact with the patient’s unprotected skin. This precaution is easily accomplished by using sheets or cotton blankets between the patient and the hypothermia blanket itself. When using this form of therapy, follow both the physician’s orders and the manufacturer’s instructions in managing the temperature control of the equipment.

HEAT (BED) CRADLE.—When using the heat (bed) cradle, protect the patient from burns resulting from overexposure or placement of the equipment too close to the area of the patient being treated. As with heating pads, heat cradles present the dual hazard of potential burns and electrical shock. Another hazard to keep in mind is that offire. Ensure that the bedding and the heat source do not come in direct contact and cause the bedding to ignite. Occasionally, heat lamps are used to accomplish the same results as a heat cradle. Do not use towels, pillow cases, or linen of any kind to drape over heat lamps. In fact, no lamps of any kind should be draped with any kind of material, regardless of the purpose of the draping.

STEAM VAPORIZERS AND HOT FOODS AND LIQUIDS.—Steam vaporizers and hot foods and liquids are common causes of patient burns. When using steam vaporizers, ensure that the vapor of steam does not flow directly on the patient as a result of the initial positioning of the equipment or by accidental movement or bumping. Patients sensitive to hot foods and liquids are more likely burned. Also, because of lack of coordination, weakness, or medication, patients may be less able to handle hot foods and liquids safely without spilling them.

In the direct patient care units as well as in diagnostic and treatment areas, there is unlimited potential for inflicting burns on patients. When the modern electrical and electronic equipment and the potent chemicals used for diagnosis and treatment are used properly, they contribute to the patient’s recovery and rehabilitation. When they are used carelessly or improperly, these same sources may cause patients additional pain and discomfort, serious illness, and, in some cases, death.

Fire and Explosion Precautions

Often when we speak of safety measures, one of our first thoughts is of a fire or an explosion involving the loss of life or injury to a number of people. Good housekeeping, maintenance, and discipline help prevent such mishaps. Remember that buildings constructed of fire-resistant materials may not be fireproof, and they are certainly not explosion proof. Good maintenance includes checking, reporting, and ensuring correct repair of electrical equipment, and routine checking of fire fighting equipment by qualified personnel. The education and training of personnel are the most effective means of preventing fires. Used in the context of fire safety measures, good discipline means developing a fire plan to use as outlined in a fire bill, having periodic fire drills, and enforcing no-smoking regulations.

FIRE EVACUATION PROCEDURES.—Staff members should be familiar with the fire regulations attheir duty station and know what to do in case of fire. Staff should know how to report a fire, use a fire extinguisher, and evacuate patients. When a fire occurs, there are certain basic rules to follow: The senior person should take charge and appoint someone to notify the fire department and the officer of the day of the exact location of the fire. Everyone should remain calm. All oxygen equipment and electrical appliances must be turned off unless such equipment is necessary to sustain life. All windows and doors should be closed and all possible exits cleared. When necessary and directed by proper authority, patients should be removed in a calm and orderly fashion and mustered outside.

SMOKING REGULATIONS.—Smoking is no longer permitted in hospitals. To ensure general safety and awareness of this prohibition, inform patients, visitors, and staff of the facility’s no-smoking status by prominently displaying “No Smoking” signs throughout the hospital—especially in rooms and areas where oxygen and flammable agents are used and stored.

Safety Precautions in the Operating Room

Since safety practices are important to emphasize, this section will cover some of the situations that are potentially hazardous in the operating room and discuss what might be done to eliminate the hazard.

All personnel should know the location of all emergency medications and equipment in the operating room. This includes drugs, cardiac arrest equipment, and resuscitators. All electrical equipment and plugs must be of the explosion-proof type and bear a label stating such. There should be written schedules of inspections and maintenance of all electrical equipment. State and local regulations prohibit the use of explosive anesthetics in the operating room. These regulations, however, do not mean we can lessen our concern for fire and explosion hazards. The surface of all floors in the operating room must provide a path of electrical conductivity between all persons and equipment making contact with the floor to prevent the accumulation of dangerous electrostatic charges. All furniture and equipment should be constructed of metal or of other electrically conductive material and should be equipped with conductive leg tips, casters, or equivalent devices. Periodic inspections should be made of leg tips, tires, casters, or other conductive devices of furniture and equipment. These inspections will ensure that they are maintained free of wax, lint, or other foreign material that may insulate them and defeat the purpose for which they are used. Excess lubrication of casters should be avoided to prevent accumulation of oil on conductive wheels. Dry graphite and graphite oil are the preferred lubricants.

Rubber accessories for anesthesia machines should be of the conductive type, plainly labeled as such, and routinely tested to ensure that conductivity is maintained. It is essential that all replacement items be of conductive material.

All personnel entering the operating room should be in electrical contact with the conductive floor by wearing conductive footwear or an alternative method of providing a path of conductivity. Conductive footwear and other personnel-to-floor conductive equipment should be tested on a regularly scheduled basis.

All apparel worn in the operating room should be made of a nonstatic-producing material. Fabrics of 100 percent cotton are the most acceptable. Fabrics made of synthetic blends may be used only if they have been treated by the manufacturer for use in the operating room. Wool blankets and apparel made of untreated synthetic fabrics are not permitted in the operating room.

Operating rooms must have adequate air-conditioning equipment to maintain relative humidity and temperature within a constant range. The relative humidity should be kept at 55 to 60 percent. This level will reduce the possibility of electrostatic discharge and possible explosion of combustible gases. The temperature should be chosen on the basis of the well-being of the patient. The recommended temperature is between 65° and 74°F. The control of bacteria carried on dust particles is facilitated when the recommended humidity and temperature are maintained.

All oxygen cylinders in use or in storage will be tagged with DD Form 1191, Warning Tag for Medical Oxygen Equipment, and measures will be taken to ensure compliance with instructions 1 through 7 printed on the form. An additional tag is required on all cylinders to indicate “EMPTY,” “IN USE,” or “FULL.” Safety precautions should be conspicuously posted in all areas in which oxygen cylinders are stored and in which oxygen therapy is being administered. This posting should be made so it will immediately make all personnel aware of the precautionary measures required in the area.

All electrical service equipment, switchboards, or panelboards should be installed in a nonhazardous location. Devices or apparatus that tend to create an arc, sparks, or high temperatures must not be installed in hazardous locations unless these devices are in compliance with the National Electrical Code. Lamps in a fixed position will be enclosed and will be properly protected by substantial metal guards or other means where exposed to breakage. Cords for portable lamps or portable electrical appliances must be continuous and without switches from the appliance to the attachment plug. Such cords must contain an insulated conductor to form a grounding connection between the electrical outlet and the appliance.


In addition to the specifics presented earlier, some other basic principles are relevant to patient safety. They are: