As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, we want to remind healthcare professionals to take time to care for themselves. You help save lives every day. The patients that you serve need you to take care of your own health so you can be there for them.
In the US alone, breast cancer strikes over 330,000 women every year. Someone’s mother. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s wife. Someone’s friend.
And although we tend to associate breast cancer with women, men are not immune. Approximately 2,600 men will be diagnosed this year as well.
We don’t have to tell you that early detection and diagnosis are key to saving lives.
Cancer diagnoses are done with biopsies and biopsies typically involve a scalpel, even if it’s only to make a small incision in the skin prior to inserting a core biopsy needle.
So we’re taking a few moments during this Breast Cancer Awareness Month to talk about scalpels and scalpel safety.
Safer Scalpel Options
Scalpels have come a long way since our human ancestors first used sharpened stones as cutting utensils. Many modern scalpels, aside from being a heck of a lot sharper than a stone, have built-in safety mechanisms to help reduce injuries. Blade size and shape excluded, there are four basic types or categories of scalpels.
- Disposable fixed-blade scalpels with a safety feature such as a retractable blade or blade cover are among the safest types of scalpels. These instruments offer one-handed operation further reducing the risk of injury. A scalpel like the Feather® Safeshield™ has a locking retractable safety shield that slides into place to cover the blade.
- A standard disposable scalpel is another option. It doesn’t have a safety cover and is only meant to be used once… the whole unit goes in the sharps bin after use. No cleaning, sharpening, or changing blades
- A reusable scalpel handle with disposable blades keeps the blade sharp without it having to be cleaned. A reusable scalpel has a certain feel that’s hard to get with a disposable. A safety blade remover like the Bladeflask Blade Remover reduces the risk of biohazard injury. The handle (minus the blade) can then be cleaned and sterilized.
- Reusable scalpels with fixed blades do still exist and may be preferred, depending on the application and the user. Cleaning and sharpening them should only be done by someone with proper training. On the plus side for safety, since there’s no changing the blade, that risk is eliminated.
Scalpel Use Safety Tips
Regardless of the type of scalpel, caution when handling them is crucial. The risk of physical injury includes not only lacerations but also the biological hazards associated with having blood-borne pathogens potentially introduced directly into the bloodstream.
Following basic safety precautions can help make scalpel use and handling safer for everyone. Here are some tips:
- Training, training, training. Nothing replaces proper training on how to use and handle blades. Practice should be done using non-hazardous materials before diving into procedures involving biohazards.
- If possible, wear a cut-resistant glove on the non-dominant hand when that hand needs to be near the blade.
- Never attempt to use a blade without a handle. Make sure replacement scalpel blades are securely attached to the handle.
- Don’t use excessive force or a sawing motion with a scalpel. Sharp blades are thin, which means they can easily be broken. Snapping a blade could cause biohazards to be sprayed or thrown into the air… not to mention pieces of the blade could be flung.
- Never put a scalpel in any pocket… lab coat or other.
- Never leave an open blade unattended. Cover it, retract it, dispose of it, or stow it in a safe location before turning your attention to something else.
- For scalpels without blade covers or retractable blades, keep a knife holder within reach and place the scalpel in the holder every time you set it down. This Stainless Steel Knife and Instrument Holder keeps the blade out of the way while holding the scalpel handle at an angle, making it easy to pick up.
- For disposables, a sharps container should be nearby so that the blade can be thrown away immediately after use. Sharps containers must be properly labeled with the biohazard symbol and medical facilities should never use makeshift containers such as jars for sharps disposal.
- Use a one-handed technique for replacing safety covers. Scalpels that have safety features should be made for one-handed operation. When passing a scalpel from person to person, develop a system that keeps both people from having a hand on it at the same time.
- When cleaning and/or sharpening reusable blades, use cleaning utensils that keep hands from contacting the blade such as a brush with a handle. Cut-resistant gloves are another option.
- Always put blades where they belong immediately after use… whether that’s in a properly labeled sharps container or in a case or holder for scalpels.
By following these scalpel-handling guidelines as well as those established by your institution, you’ll help to keep yourself and those around you safe.
We appreciate everything you do for the patients you help, whether directly or indirectly. When you work behind the scenes, you don’t always get recognition or acknowledgement for your role in patient care. Take a moment and pat yourself on the back.
At PathSUPPLY we are helping those who help patients.
 Vanderbilt University Medical Center, https://www.vumc.org/safety/bio/using-sharps-in-lab