ST. LOUIS COUNTY - A long-time nurse inside SSM Health Care says the company compromised the safety of its patients at Heart Health screenings inside SSM's hospitals and at screenings in the community.
The nurse talked to 5 on Your Side exclusively and told us what she saw.
"I saw one of my coworkers had a blood-spattered pad," she said. She also said the blood was from multiple patients. It's the pad that goes under the equipment nurses use to take blood pressure, test for blood sugar, blood lipid levels and blood pressure and body fat analyzer. She worried about disease-spreading. She reported the incident verbally to her supervisor.
"My boss kind of told me to drop it," she said.
She called a trusted infection-control nurse inside SSM. The nurse told her something else she didn't' know. Equipment needed to be cleaned before every patient. That's what the Centers for Disease Control recommends.
"I was very distressed to hear that because I thought, 'What are we doing to these people?' They're coming here for health screenings and we may be exposing them to blood-borne pathogens," she said.
An email response to the nurse's complaints in April 2013 instructed nurses to change the blue pads, clean the slots in the machines, and wipe them down at the end of every day. But it didn't tell them to clean the equipment before every patient, as the CDC recommends.
A month later, the nurse got another email saying nothing more needed to change. She asked for advice on how to clean the machines. She said SSM was using household Clorox, not the hospital-strength that can kill blood bacteria.
"That ended up being my major complaint that we didn't have the correct wipe," she said.
The head infection control nurse told her SSM was following the CDC rules. For more than a year, the nurse registered multiple complaints anonymously inside of SSM's process.
"I know the way we were doing things for so long were wrong and it needed to change," she said.
Things weren't changing so in April, she filed a complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On July 8, OSHA cited SSM for not using the proper hospital-grade wipes to clean the blood off the machines.
OSHA also investigated SSM for not cleaning the equipment after every use and not having an infection-control policy, but OSHA did not cite SSM for those issues.
SSM updated its infection-control policy a week after OSHA's investigation started. It included using hospital-grade wipes and disinfecting equipment between patients. The nurse said there's no way to know if a patient at the screening could have gotten a blood-borne disease.
In a statement to Newschannel 5, SSM contends no patients were ever exposed to any blood-borne diseases. A spokesman said there's a "virtually zero" percent chance of exposure to nurses because they were wearing gloves and using hand sanitizer frequently. A spokesman said the hospital now follows CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting its equipment between patients.
He said "The safety of our patients, staff and visitors is a top priority for SSM Health Care and we take matters like this seriously."
SSM said if you're concerned about exposure to diseases call 877-759-5575 and press option 2.