Needles must be handled with care, as, while a pricked finger may not seem serious, it can lead to a serious, even life-changing, infection with a blood-borne virus, such as Hepatitis B & C or HIV. There is no vaccine or cure for some of these viruses.

Asides from needles, any sharp object, such as a scalpel, fragment of broken glass, etc. could pose an infection risk. Collectively, these are referred to as 'sharps'.

Who is at risk?

Although in theory anybody could come across a used needle or other potentially contaminated sharp object, the risk is most common for people in the following occupations:
  • Healthcare
  • Police
  • Social work
  • Prisons
  • Waste disposal/management
  • Body piercing/body art
As well as being used widely in hospital settings, clinics and nursing homes, needles can be found almost anywhere, including derelict buildings and alleyways, due to their use by drug addicts. HIV is particularly common amongst these drug users, necessitating extreme care during clean-up.

Should a needle contaminated with blood puncture or scratch the skin, any infections within that blood may be transmitted to the injured person. Known as a needle-stick injury, even the tiniest wound could become infected. All possible care must be taken to avoid these injuries. Needles should only be disposed of by trained persons wearing the right personal protective equipment (PPE).

Safety precautions

There are several simple yet effective ways to protect against needle-stick injuries:
  • Wear appropriate PPE. This should include disposable examination gloves (typically nitrile or latex) and/or puncture resistant gloves (such as TurtleSkin gloves). Disposable gloves alone are generally not sufficient to prevent injury but you can improve protection by double-gloving
  • As an alternative to picking up needles by hand, use a special grabbing device
  • Never pass sharps to others directly from hand to hand
  • Never re-sheath needles by hand
  • Dispose of needles and other sharps at the point of use
  • Deposit used needles into a sharps bin (and only into a sharps bin) for final disposal according to biohazard proceedures (ie. incineration or maceration)
  • Never fill sharps containers above the manufacturer's marked line
  • Never mix sharps with other clinical waste or place in yellow clinical waste bags
  • Do not rush when handling sharps and never neglect these precautions

If you receive a needlestick injury

In most cases it is unknown whether the needle is infected, therefore it is necessary to act as if it is. Following a needlestick injury, you should:

1. Gently squeeze the area around the puncture, encouraging it to bleed. DO NOT suck the wound
2. Hold the wound under running water for at least 5 minutes, then wash the area with soap and cover with an appropriate plaster
3. Visit a doctor or A&E department immediately for follow-up tests and treatment

To avoid infection with blood-borne diseases more generally, you should:
  • Wash hands/affected skin immediately and thoroughly after contact with blood or body fluids
  • Wash hands after treating each patient
  • Wear a disposable apron if there is a risk of blood or body fluid splashing onto you
  • Wear protective eyewear if there is a potential for blood or body fluid to splash into the face
  • Cover all open and recent wounds to create a barrier to infection
  • Handle any blood or body fluid spills with appropriate equipment (e.g. PPE, absorbent powder, disinfectant)
In situations where employees are likely to be exposed to blood / body fluids or used needles then the employer is responsible for ensuring that employees are provided with the appropriate equipment to protect against needle-stick injuries.

This article is for guidance only and should not be used in place of recognised training and procedures.