5 Things You Need to Know About Protecting Yourself from Chemotherapy Drugs

Protecting healthcare personnel from hazardous drugs has been a topic of concern for decades. There is growing evidence that occupational exposure to over 200 drugs commonly used in healthcare settings can lead to acute and chronic health effects.1 In an effort to address this, the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) published chapter USP <800> of the USP Compounding Compendium in December of 2017, to help increase awareness, provide uniform guidance to reduce the risk of managing hazardous drugs (HDs) and help reduce the risk posed to patients and the healthcare workforce. 2

USP <800> is broader than previous standards, as it covers handling of hazardous drugs (HDs) from the loading dock all the way through to patient administration and disposal.3 The guidance includes environmental and engineering controls and drug handling guidelines, as well as guidelines for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Importantly, regulations issued by USP and OSHA are enforceable, and apply to all healthcare workers who handle chemotherapy drugs.2

To help protect yourself and your team and ensure compliance with these latest guidelines, here are the five things you need to know:

  1. There is no safe level of exposure to cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs for healthcare workers
    Exposure to chemotherapy drugs increases your risk of chromosomal damage, cancers and adverse reproductive outcomes. 1 That’s why regulations issued by OSHA and USP on handling hazardous chemotherapy drugs are enforceable and apply to all healthcare workers. Additionally, any drug used in cancer treatment (except those in solid oral dosage forms that require only counting or packaging) listed in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) group 1 requires full compliance with the USP standards.4
  2. Tight control of each step in the HD life cycle is necessary
    USP <800> delineates requirements that cover the responsibilities of personnel handling HDs; facility and engineering controls; procedures for deactivating, decontaminating, and cleaning; spill control; and documentation. Properly educating pharmacy workers and healthcare providers—as well as risk management, legal, and drug delivery personnel—is crucial to protecting patients and their healthcare team.3
  3. USP <800> provides guidelines for the use of PPE2
    To protect yourself and your team, it’s important to follow the latest guidelines for PPE to reduce your risk of exposure. PPE for use in administering chemotherapy includes:

    • Coverage for hair and beards
    • Goggles and a face shield
    • A fit-tested N95 respirator mask
    • 2 pairs of gloves tested against drugs commonly used in chemotherapy
    • A chemo-rated impervious gown that extends below knees and closes in the back (or is fully covered in the back)
    • Shoe or boot covers
  4. Each type of PPE has specific requirements to ensure safe handling2
    Gloves must be appropriately tested for use with chemotherapy drugs. The American Society for Testing and Materials has established ASTM D6978, which is the Standard Practice for Assessment of Resistance of Medical Gloves to Permeation by Chemotherapy Drugs. The USP requirement for double gloving is meant to reduce cross-contamination rather than increasing permeation time. In addition, gloves should be replaced every 30 minutes.There is no comparable test for gowns, but gowns for chemotherapy use must be poly-coated, disposable and seamless, with long sleeves and knitted or elastic cuffs. They also must close in the back, not the front and should be replaced every two to three hours, or immediately after a spill or splash.Speaking of splashes, healthcare personnel should also wear a full face shield to protect their eyes from splashes. And goggles should be added to protect the eyes if there is a potential for splash exposure. A fit-tested NIOSH-certified N95 respirator mask should also be worn to protect against airborne particles and provide a barrier to splashes, droplets, and sprays around the nose and mouth. OSHA regulations for training and fit-testing respiratory protection (OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.134) should be followed.Wearing full-coverage head and hair covers (and beard and mustache covers if applicable) is recommended. Donning a second pair of shoe-covers before entering a spill area and removing the outer pair on leaving, is also recommended. Shoe covers worn in HD handling areas must not be worn to other areas, to avoid spreading HD contamination and exposing other healthcare workers.
  5. You need to put on, take off and dispose of PPE appropriately4
    There are specific directions for donning, doffing and disposing of PPE used in the administration of chemotherapy. Hair covers, shoe covers, a N95 respirator mask, goggles and a face shield should be put on before entering patient treatment areas. Wash hands and then don a chemo-rated procedure gown, followed by two pairs of gloves, placing the inner glove underneath the cuff of the chemo gown, and the outer glove over and completely covering the cuff of the chemo gown.When taking off your PPE, remove outer gloves first, followed by the gown and other PPE before removing the inner pair of gloves. A best practice is to consider all PPE worn when handling hazardous drugs to be contaminated and disposing of it immediately in an appropriate, designated waste container.

Related Article

Safety First Means People First

In 2008, NIOSH estimated eight million workers are at risk of exposure to hazardous drugs. Yet according to a recent study conducted by NIOSH, many female nurses acknowledged not wearing PPE when administering chemotherapy. The study, one of the first to delve into the use of PPE by pregnant and non-pregnant female nurses, gathered the results of nearly 40,000 respondents over an eight-year period. Surprisingly, many respondents reported not even wearing gloves and gowns – the minimum PPE requirements.1

Earlier studies have revealed a few reasons why healthcare personnel may not take the recommended safety precautions when it comes to PPE. 5 These reasons include:

  • Prioritizing care for patients over their own personal health
  • A lack of concern about or awareness of the toxicity of these drugs
  • Protective gloves and gowns were not available
  • Nurses were not given the opportunity to put on PPE

The results of these studies clearly indicate the need for more education for both healthcare personnel and employers about the hazards of exposure to chemotherapy drugs. Proper training on the use of PPE when administering chemotherapy helps to ensure appropriate use. It’s important that everyone on the clinical team knows: 6

  • When it is necessary
  • What kind is necessary
  • How to properly put it on, adjust, wear and take it off
  • The limitations of the equipment
  • The proper care, maintenance, useful life, and disposal of the equipment. 6

Empowering healthcare personnel and others to advocate for their own safety requires up-to-date information and easily enacted protocol reforms. After all, the best way to serve patients is to protect healthcare professionals from unnecessary hazards.


  1. CDC Web Site: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/healthcarehsps/antidrugeffects.html
  2. USP General Chapter <800> Hazardous Drugs – Handling in Healthcare Settings, (p. 6-7). United States Pharmacopeial Convention, USP 40 -NF 35, Second Supplement (2017). www.usp.org
  3. NIH Web Site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5398627/
  1. Kienle et al, The Chapter <800> Answer Book, ASHP Publications, Kienle, Patricia C, , 2017, p vii.
  2. NIH Web Site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4568815/
  3. NIH Web Site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24766408