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Are Our Hospitals Doing Enough To Protect Midwives From The Effects Of Gas & Air?

Entonox, otherwise known as gas and air, is an effective pain relief commonly used in birth. It takes just 15 to 20 seconds to work and is used by 76% of women in labour. But over the past 6 months, numerous hospitals in Essex, including The Princess Alexandra Hospital and Basildon University Hospital, have suspended the use of gas and air. Staff were being exposed to excess nitrous oxide, according to the hospitals. So, just how much of an occupational health and safety issue is gas and air?

Occupational risk

Gas and air is considered safe for women in labour and their babies. However, for staff, such as midwives, who are exposed to it constantly, it can be dangerous. Research has found that healthcare workers who inhale nitrous oxide as part of their jobs are at risk of a vitamin b12 deficiency. This can lead to fatigue, anaemia, and nerve damage. There are also concerns that gas and air affects fertility in these workers.

A hazardous substance

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) describes gas and air as a ‘hazardous substance’. Midwives concerned about their exposure to the substance have been told to get legal assistance. Exposure to harmful substances in the workplace is a leading cause of work-related injuries and illnesses. These problems often force employees to take time off work. It’s also possible for affected employees to seek workers’ compensation for the illness sustained.

Protecting midwives

Princess Alexandra Hospital has started using gas and air again. But, that’s not yet the case at Basildon University Hospital. Ventilation systems are often used by hospitals to improve air quality. Scavenging can also be done, although it’s not frequently used in labour wards. This involves the birthing mother breathing the gas back into a tube. Hospitals should also regularly monitor and test air quality levels. It was recently revealed by the BBC that excessively high nitrous oxide levels at Basildon University Hospital were discovered in June 2021, but staff weren’t informed until October 2022. All hospitals must ensure they inform staff of any issues that could affect their health immediately and take steps to resolve them.

Workplace health and safety is a big concern in hospitals in Essex and across the rest of the UK. The recent temporary ban on gas and air shows that hospitals are taking their staff’s health seriously. But more can be done to protect them.

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