Decontamination at the Hospital: Importance & Types

Instructor: Alexandra Unfried

Alexandra earned her master's degree in nursing education and is currently a hospital supervisor/administrator.

Hospital-based decontamination includes patients, rooms, and equipment. This lesson will discuss the importance and types of decontamination at a hospital.

Exposure to a Contaminant

Several factory workers have been exposed to a chemical contaminant when a machine malfunctioned and leaked a chemical onto work surfaces. Five employees got the chemical on their skin before the contaminant could be reported or contained. They are immediately isolated and transported to the hospital emergency room using a specified work truck used to transport hazardous material. They arrive at the hospital and are triaged in the truck by the medical team, so they will know how to move forward with decontamination. One of the employees named Fred is anxious and impatient, so he asks why it is so important to ask all of these questions.

Importance of Decontamination at the Hospital

Decontamination involves the removal or neutralization of hazardous substances from people, equipment, and the environment. Anyone or anything exposed to a hazardous material must be properly decontaminated in order to stop further exposures. Decontamination not only reduces the spread of the particular contaminant, but it also prevents healthcare-associated infections, depending on the type of contaminant.

Fred and the rest of his team now understand the importance of decontamination in reducing the incidence of contaminating other people. Fred begins to tell the medical team that a machine malfunctioned and leaked a chemical onto surfaces that workers touched unknowingly.

Types of Contamination

A contingency plan must always be in place to decontaminate people, the environment, and equipment. The four main types of contaminants are:

  • Chemical (pesticides, arsenic, and cleaning or painting solutions)
  • Biological (microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and molds)
  • Radiological (radioactive dust, gamma rays, and nuclear medicine)
  • Nerve agents (synthetic chemical VX, sarin, and tabun)

Bacteria are a type of biological contaminant
Bacteria are a type of biological contaminant

The factory workers' skin has been exposed to pesticides. Some people have no symptoms while others are experiencing redness and a burning sensation on the skin that was exposed to the chemical. The medical team is ready to decontaminate the group.

Types of Decontamination

Decontamination is divided into technical and medical decontamination. Technical decontamination is the cleaning of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vehicles while medical decontamination is the cleaning of those people who have been exposed to the contaminant. PPE has several different levels of protection based on the contaminant, but essentially consist of ear and eye protection, respirators, boots, gloves, and chemical protective suits.

Example of a chemical protective suit
Example of a chemical protective suit

Medical Decontamination

Any person exposed to a vapor form of a hazardous material does not usually require decontamination, and can simply be removed from the area. A general process is used when people are exposed to other contaminants.

  1. Decontamination is done by removing any clothing and placing it in a bag to reduce the spread of exposure.
  2. Water used with soap or an additional solution is used to wash the contaminant off, followed by a thorough rinse with plain water.
  3. People dry off completely and wear clean clothes.

This process can be done in the hospital or in the field where the exposure took place. Since there are only five factory workers, they are taken into the hospital's decontamination area. Each person completes the decontamination process. Those people with reactions to the chemical are then treated with medications and creams.

Technical Decontamination

Equipment and vehicles that require decontamination are done using various solutions. Equipment is either soaked in a solution, sterilized using dry heat or an autoclave, aerosol sprayed with gasses or liquids, or disinfected by wiping down surfaces. Other electrotechnologies use procedures that do not require physical contact such as:

  • Electron beams
  • X-rays
  • Pulsed electric fields
  • Microwaves
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light

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