Preparedness: key to keeping healthcare employees safe during infectious disease outbreaks


Jim Bach

Supply chain executive

RoseMarie Squeo, RN, BSN, MA

Senior Consultant, Clinical Operations
Surgical Gloves
Cardinal Health

With several recent infectious disease outbreaks, the healthcare industry is seeing an increased focus on personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep employees safe from harmful exposure while caring for their patients. For example, in October 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on PPE to be used by healthcare workers during clinical management of patients infected with the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).[1] Emerging and re-emerging epidemic diseases, such as EVD, pose an ongoing threat to healthcare workers.

In this article, we’ll discuss how proper education, ease-of-use, accurate maintenance of inventory and  disaster management preparedness can help keep healthcare workers safe during infectious disease outbreaks.

It all starts with education

Proper education – on the dangers of not using PPE and the impact of PPE on worker safety and health – is key to keeping employees safe and preventing the spread of disease. Clinicians must know why they need to use each specific type of PPE for their job so they can feel confident that the PPE they are being asked to use is reliable in performing its intended function.

Ease of use and clinician feedback are key

PPE should be easy to use, comfortable and should not interfere with patient care. Clinicians want to be involved in the selection of PPE, and make recommendations for different, or newer, products if they find the current products are not performing to standards or are difficult to use. Listening and gaining clinicians’ confidence in PPE selection can help to improve usage compliance.

Planning in advance to be prepared for outbreaks

In addition to properly educating healthcare employees, and ensuring their effective usage of PPE, hospitals should consider their disaster management preparedness plan, which is essential when it comes to maintaining PPE inventory as part of outbreak preparedness.

The plan should identify the types of PPE needed, as well as the quantity levels. Hospitals should consider stocking PPE that can be consumed in daily operations, as much as possible, to ensure the stock is consumed on a First in First Out (FIFO) basis. For example, try not to purchase a unique item that does not have current or alternative use in your facility. This will help eliminate scrapping stock due to expiration dates.

Decisions regarding when to use PPE, and what type to use, should be determined by CDC recommendations for standard precautions, previously called universal precautions, and expanded isolation precautions. According to the CDC, standard precautions assume blood and body fluid of ANY patient could be infectious and recommends PPE and other infection control practices to prevent transmission in any healthcare setting. In addition, according to the CDC, expanded precautions include contact precautions, droplet precautions and airborne infection isolation. PPE kits that contain a variety of PPE, based on Standard or Expanded Precaution types, can increase efficiency and convenience to the staff.

It’s crucial to work closely with PPE suppliers and government officials to ask what their stocking plans are should an outbreak occur. PPE needs will fluctuate depending on the type of outbreak, so CDC (or other government guidelines) regarding specific PPE should always be your first priority.

Proper donning, wear and removal of PPE should also be a part of every facility’s disaster management preparedness plan. Key actions to take for your facility include, but are not limited to: 

  • Education during new employee orientation
  • Continuing education and practice drills at the facility
  • Posted instruction at key areas, including facility policy and procedure, CDC website and the facility infection control practitioner’s name and number

As infectious disease outbreaks continue to emerge and re-emerge, it’s important for hospitals to educate their healthcare workers on proper usage of PPE and to have a disaster management plan in place to keep their employees safe throughout the duration of patient care for the next outbreak.