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How to prevent the 5 main occupational hazards in dentistry

We’re all so focused on the risks of dental professionals contracting COVID-19 in the practice, that we’ve completely forgotten about the other occupational hazards staff come into contact with every day. From frequent radiation exposure to using dangerous chemicals, dentists, hygienists and assistants meet potential imperilment every single day.

Although no one wants to put themselves at risk, some jobs are more dangerous than others and require staff to deal with workplace dangers on a daily basis. Here are five of the most common occupational hazards in dentistry today and the best ways to deal with them.

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Infection

COVID-19 isn’t the only virus dental staff are at risk of contracting. There’s a host of other serious viruses, diseases and illnesses people who work in a dental practice can develop from treating patients. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Hepatitis B, Staphylococci, Streptococci, Cytomegalovirus, Herpes simplex virus and HIV are just some of the diseases dental staff might come into contact with.

The microorganisms that cause the above illnesses are found in the blood and saliva of infected people. If some of these bodily fluids work their way inside the body of a healthy employee, there’s a good chance the employee will contract the illness too. 

PPE is the best way to prevent the spread of infection. The coronavirus pandemic has made it clearer than ever how wearing a face mask, face shield, gloves and gown can protect those most at risk. Even after the pandemic is under control, keeping up with strict PPE is still a good idea to stop other infections.

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Chemicals

Dental staff are some of the professionals who most frequently suffer from work-related eczema caused by allergic reactions and local irritation, as a result of coming into contact with chemicals. 

There are several different ways dental staff are regularly exposed to chemicals. One is by using dental materials that give off reactive chemicals during the preparation, polishing and removal of restorations. Another way is through wearing latex medical gloves or using rubber chemicals when the member of staff has an allergy. Employees can also come into contact with chemicals through strong disinfectants used for infection control. 

The best way to prevent skin damage caused by harmful chemicals is to use other, less abrasive chemicals. But this isn’t always possible in a dental practice when sterilization and disinfecting requirements are high. The second best way to protect staff is to ensure proper gloves are worn when handling chemicals. Employees should also be aware if they have an allergy to latex and use gloves made from an alternative material when possible. 

Radiation

While x-ray machines have completely revolutionized the way dentists diagnose and treat dental problems, they also create a problem on their own: increased exposure to radiation. Incredibly high doses of radiation have been linked to various types of cancer, but the exact connection between the two and the dose it takes has yet to be scientifically established.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that employees shouldn’t be exposed to more than 5,000 mrem of ionizing radiation dose per year or 1,250 mrem per quarter. The maximum dose is much lower for pregnant women: they should only be exposed to 500 mrem for the full duration of their pregnancy at the most.

Even if a member of staff doesn’t directly carry out x-rays on patients, they can still be exposed to radiation. Because of this, it’s crucial to monitor employees’ risk to keep them safe.

Dosimeters can help track radiation levels in the dental practice and warn staff when they’re at an increased risk. Individual dosimetry badges worn by dental employees let them know exactly how much radiation they’ve been exposed to. Some advanced badges even upload this information directly to a computer or mobile device so there’s no need for an office manager to collect badges and track exposure every day.

Physical pain

It’s not only patients who come into the dental practice complaining about pain. A lot of dentists, hygienists and assistants suffer from pain in the office, too. But instead of originating in their mouths, the pain is most often found in their back.

A clinical study revealed that 70% of dentists experience back pain, with the lower back being the area at most risk. This problem is so prevalent because of the unusual way dental professionals stand and work for almost their entire day.

You’ve got to get yourself into a very unnatural position to properly gain access to a patient’s mouth while being able to see what you’re doing and manipulate dental instruments. Spending hours in a physical stance that the human body wasn’t designed for results in serious pain.

There are many different ways you can alleviate or even eradicate physical pain as a dental professional, but it’s something you’ve got to actively think about. When you’re treating a patient, you slip back into the way you regularly do things. So unless you catch and stop yourself, your pain will continue well after you’ve retired.

Maintaining good posture when possible, taking stretching breaks when you can, buying better equipment designed to reduce back pain and getting involved with physical therapy or exercise outside the dental practice can all help.

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Stress

Most dental professionals have very high stress levels, and although stress isn’t a physically obvious occupational hazard like using toxic chemicals or having bad posture, it can be just as harmful. Being chronically stressed can affect many aspects of your life, from the quality of care you provide to your patients to your mental state you take home with you at the end of the day.

If not managed correctly, occupational burnout is a real possibility which could lead to strains on personal relationships with friends and family, problems in the dental practice with staff and poor quality treatment for your patients. If you’re a stressed out RDH or RDA, you could easily lose your job. On the contrary, if you’re an overworked practice owner, you could just as easily lose your practice.

Although it’s hard to get out of the stressful work cycle, it’s something you’ve got to do for the wellbeing of yourself and those around you. Force yourself to have breaks throughout the day, connect with colleagues to discuss any workplace problems, give yourself things to look forward to when you’re not at work and stick to your work schedule — don’t let it intrude into your personal life.

Prevention is always better than cure

Working in a dental practice is never totally risk-free. There are always going to be some dangers you expose yourself to when you walk through the door. But just because the hazards are present doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in harm’s way. Take our advice on how to protect yourself from the most common occupational threats in the dental office and you won’t have to worry. 

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