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How to Protect Yourself as a Nurse: Reminders to Keep Yourself Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How to Protect Yourself as a Nurse: Reminders to Keep Yourself Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As a nurse, you might be experiencing added stress when treating patients with COVID-19 and maybe you’re wondering what extra precautions you can take to protect yourself on the job. To help ease your mind, we’ve collected information and tips on preventative things you can do before, during, and after work to help keep yourself, your loved ones, and your patients as safe as possible.

Why Healthcare Workers Are Catching COVID-19

Why are 10% of COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases health care workers? Are we not protecting ourselves well enough? Dr. Siobhan from Toronto answers these tough questions: 

If you're looking for a new nursing job check out our nursing job board where you can search by keyword or location. New jobs get posted daily. 

How long does Coronavirus stay on surfaces?

The life span of a coronavirus varies, depending on the surface it’s sitting on or how long its droplets have been in the air. To keep yourself safe, it’s important to know the lifespan of COVID-19 so you can protect yourself during and after work.

The virus can live anywhere from a few minutes to 7 days depending on how far it travels and on the material on which it sits.

Check out the diagram below for more information:


Source: New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet Microbe, 
business insider.

Using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Correctly

Make sure you are always protect yourself when you’re around or treating patients with COVID-19. The Canadian Nurses Association provides the following guidelines:

“Before you provide care, review your provincial/territorial and organizational policies on infection prevention control practices for COVID-19. National guidelines state:

For care of suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, droplet/contact precautions are required; these precautions include facial protection (with surgical or procedure mask and eye protection — goggles, safety glasses, visor, or face shield), gown and gloves. For aerosol-generating medical procedures (AGMPs), N95 respirators are required.”

Always put on your PPE in this order:

  • Gown
  • Mask/respirator,
  • Googles 
  • Gloves

Besides making sure you have PPE, Nursing Times stresses the importance of knowing how to choose the right PPE and how to wear and remove it safely. For example, while PPE protects you on the job, self-contamination typically happens when it’s being removed and gets under your skin or on your clothes.

PPE needs to be removed in the following sequence to minimise the risk of cross/self-contamination:

  • Gloves;
  • Apron/gown;
  • Mask/respirator, when worn;
  • Hands must be decontaminated after the removal of PPE.

If you’re working in conditions where you’re not given proper/safe PPE we recommend contacting your union, for example Occupational health and safety (OH&S) legislation. You should also bring it up to your manager or connect with other coworkers who will speak out with you.

Don’t be afraid to speak out and demand proper protection. If you need to file an incident report, file one. You cannot help protect your patients if you are not properly protecting yourself first. 

Wash and Disinfect your Scrubs

When working with patients suffering from COVID-19, there are many things before, during, and after work that you can do to protect yourself as a frontline worker. Examples include: 

  • not wearing jewelry and accessories, 
  • wearing scrubs and bringing a change of clothes, 
  • sanitizing your hands and all belongings, 
  • wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, and 
  • washing your clothes and scrubs immediately and under the right wash settings (more on this below).

Source: Lonelle Selbo from LIFEAULAIT.


How Best to Wash your Clothes and Scrubs

We all recognize scrubs as a uniform and symbol of the nursing profession. But did you know they are also meant to ensure both your safety and that of your patients through proper hygiene?

Keeping your scrubs clean and free of bacteria is extremely important, as they can harbor pathogens that can compromise safety. Nurse Buff suggests avoiding this is by washing and disinfecting them after each shift. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Separate scrubs from regular clothes. This means that as soon as you get home, you need to change out of your scrubs and put them in a separate hamper. If you change into regular clothes before leaving work, bring a plastic freezer bag to seal your dirty scrubs up until it’s time to do laundry.

    To limit your water and energy consumption, wait until you have several dirty scrubs to wash. But when loading them in your washing machine, make sure that there’s enough room for your scrubs to move around. Otherwise, you won’t be able to clean them thoroughly. Also, it’s important if you live with an immunocompromised person who does laundry to remind them to wear disposable gloves for protection.

  • Check your scrubs for any stains. If there’s blood, you can apply a small amount of bleach or vinegar first. For coffee stains, mix one part vinegar and 2 parts water.

  • Wash with cold water and detergent on a normal setting. Be sure to turn your scrubs inside out first to prevent abrading. When this first wash is done, check your scrubs again for stains, as the next step needs hot water which can likely make the stains set.

    If there are no stains left, proceed with a second wash. If you still see stains, you may need to soak your scrubs to properly disinfect them (but don’t leave them too long in the bleach or the fabric could get damaged).

  • Use bleach for stains. If your washer has a bleach dispenser, use it to dilute the bleach before adding it to your load. Otherwise, fill your tub first with hot water and add a ¾ cup of bleach (don’t use full strength bleach as it can weaken clothing fibres and remove colour completely). Add the bleach to the washer water before adding your scrubs.

  • Tumble dry on the highest heat setting for about 30 minutes, to kill the bacteria on your scrubs.

  • Iron your scrubs. This subjects them to high heat which ensures any remaining bacteria on your uniform are removed.

  • Place your scrubs in a plastic dry-cleaning bag to limit exposure, and don’t remove them until you’re going to wear them. Make sure that you only change into them when you get to the hospital.

Face Mask Hacks

Despite the importance of protecting yourself with a face mask, you may still cringe every time you put it on - after all, they aren’t known for comfort! Cnet provides some great tips to maximize your comfort when you use basic masks. 

  • Avoid ear chafing. This can occur from the elastic rubbing behind your ears. A great solution for this is to wear a headband with buttons that attach the mask’s elastic loops. You can also add buttons to the sides of your glasses if you use them.

    Likewise, you could get creative if you've got long hair or have an old folder laying around!

    Check out Etsy to purchase or even just get ideas for different ways you can use hooks and headbands to secure your mask.

  • Wear only 100% cotton face masks and coverings as cotton helps you keep cool. Cotton is considered to have better ventilation and will trap less of the moisture that builds up from breathing and sweating. Since your face mask may have multiple layers, you'll want a material that doesn't restrict your breathing. Plus, certain materials like polyester can trap moisture through its water-resistant properties.

  • Make it snug but not tight. Although you need the mask to fit snugly around your face to help prevent respiratory droplets from coming or going, don’t make it so tight that it hurts your face or gives you less room to breathe. Try your mask out at home before leaving for a longer period of time and adjust it as needed, to avoid having to take it off and readjust in public.

  • Change your mask. Your mask’s lifespan during the day may be shortened as your face sweats and creates moisture. Once a mask becomes wet, it's no longer useful and should be changed immediately. Keep an extra mask with you when you know you'll be out for a while. Once you’re home, remove your mask and wash it before using it again.

  • Carefully consider your face products. If your skin is naturally dry, put on moisturizer before wearing a mask. This can help prevent skin irritation from where the mask rubs your face. For those with oily skin, consider avoiding liquid foundation as it can clog your pores and can also rub off on your mask, which leads to decreased air filtration that makes it harder to breathe. If you have sensitive skin, skip makeup entirely and cleanse your face before and after wearing a mask.


‘The principle of hierarchy’ when treating COVID-19 Patients

Keep in mind the position statement of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. It advises that things are changing daily and so it’s best to use your judgement and keep the principle of hierarchy in mind:

"New evidence and information on COVID-19 is emerging daily, and CFNU’s recommendations remain based on emerging science and Occupational Health and Safety principles, including the precautionary principle; in particular, as it applies to nurses using their professional clinical judgment when performing a point-of-care risk assessment.

As well, the occupational health and safety principle of the hierarchy of controls applies. It starts with
eliminating the hazard when possible. When that cannot be accomplished, a combination of engineering and administrative controls, combined with personal protective equipment, must be applied.

The system is called a hierarchy because you must apply each level in the order that they fall in the list; a systematic comprehensive approach must be taken to reducing hazards; a hierarchy of controls cannot be applied in a piecemeal fashion."

For more information, check out the Federation’s position statement page.


Know that you won’t need to ration care on your own

In health care settings with limited resources, you may need to ration care, and while your health authority or hospital may have guidelines about this, rest assured that this very
very emotional and difficult decision you won’t ever need to make on your own.

For example, the globe and mail published an article on B.C.’s decision-making framework around the allocation of scarce resources. Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, stated that the framework means that “no single individual clinician or a health-care worker will have to make those entirely terrible decisions on their own.”

That said, if you’re working under these circumstances, Eike-Henner Kluge, the leading medical ethicist who established the Canadian Medical Association’s Department of Ethics, said the real distress comes from being put in that situation and having to apply the guidelines in individual cases. Making decisions like this can lead to burn-out and burden. 


Take care of yourself

To reduce burn-out and burden, make sure you take care of yourself. Sounds easy enough right? However, under stressful situations it’s just as easy to forget.

Make sure you get enough rest and remember to eat! Exhaustion and hunger exacerbate stress. Reducing stress and looking out for yourself is critical to protecting your own health, so that you can continue to be there for your patients and your family.

This also means things such as taking the time to be sure you and your team members have put on your protective equipment correctly, and taking even more care when removing the equipment so you don’t contaminate yourself or others in the process.

Join a community, speak to a supervisor or friend, and make sure you’re not bottling anything up inside. Sometimes connecting and being able to talk openly is a good way to release tensions.

Behave like the important, limited resource that you are

At work, you will have the support and camaraderie of your fellow health workers, who share the common goal to defeat the virus. But when you’re off the clock, your friends and family may be wary of being around you for fear of being exposed to any chance of catching COVID-19 - despite what the statistics show and every precaution you’ve taken. Don’t take this personally or let it wear you down. We are in unprecedented times and as you’ve probably already seen, people handle and deal with situations in very different ways. Just remember, you are doing a very important job and people recognize this. 


All in All 

Knowing how long the coronavirus lives, how to wash and disinfect your scrubs, what PPE you’ll need and how to comfortably wear a face mask are some of the small things you can do to reduce the amount of stress you’re under.

Don’t forget to take good care of yourself and keep the big picture in mind - you are saving lives in this worldwide pandemic and there is a hierarchy of care in place to guide you each day.


Related Resources

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Author Bio:

Emma Caplan writes and edits client-facing documents and takes pride in making them sales-ready and reader-friendly. She has additional experience in quality control and proofreading. She has written articles and podcast summaries for the Vancouver Real Estate Podcast, edited fiction and non-fiction books, and volunteers as a copy editor for Editors BC’s West Coast Editor and Students for High Impact Charities.

Emma has also earned a certificate in editing and a bachelor of management degree. In her free time, Emma enjoys hiking, travelling, and creating jewelry. Connect with her on LinkedIn