Standard Precautions vs Universal Precautions: What Are the Differences?

Staying safe can be tough when it seems like contaminants are anywhere.

One way to protect against this is to have a standard set of guidelines to use at all times. This cuts down on decision fatigue and helps us stay protected.

In the coronavirus pandemic, virus transmission can happen pretty much anywhere. People can be contagious without knowing, and the virus can spread from something as simple as a sneeze.

Universal precautions and standard precautions can help. These guidelines treat fluids as though they’re contagious. Knowing the differences between standard precautions vs. universal precautions can help you understand how to protect yourself from the disease.

These guidelines apply to a wide variety of professions. They include hand washing, decontamination, and personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks.

And during the pandemic, they have become relevant for everyday people as well, even outside the workplace.

The History of Standard Precautions vs. Universal Precautions

Terminology can be confusing without some historical context.

At first, standard precautions might seem like a baseline. Universal precautions, on the other hand, sound like they would cover more situations. But in reality, neither of these is true.

Standard precautions came about after universal precautions. This piece of knowledge might help you understand the dynamics better. In a way, standard precautions were an extension of universal precautions.

The HIV epidemic

Universal precautions came about in the 1980s, a time when public health experts were mainly worried about blood. Diseases like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis B were among the top concerns.

Before universal precautions, serious precautions were sometimes reserved for patients with a confirmed illness. This led to many tricky situations, as you might imagine. Many diseases don’t result in symptoms for years.

Because workers didn’t always know whether someone’s blood was contaminated, they may not have always made the right call. This is especially relevant in emergency scenarios when there isn’t always enough time to do a test first.

Universal precautions brought a change to the system. Under these guidelines, workers would use careful safety measures whether or not a patient had a confirmed illness.

Body Substance Isolation

Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released another set of standards. They called these Body Substance Isolation measures.

Body Substance Isolation focused on providing barriers between people and other people’s body fluids. The idea was to isolate the fluid (or substance) to minimize the risk of various types of transmission. This includes contact transmission as well as droplet transmission.

These new guidelines were an addition to universal precautions, but they were more general. Body Substance Isolation applied to “all moist and potentially infectious body substances.” This broad language paved the way for standard precautions.

The Flu and Other Viruses

After a few decades, public health experts realized they needed a new standard for protection against disease. People needed to focus more on the dangers of fluids besides blood.

For example, the 21st century saw the dangers of widespread flu epidemics. These were often spread by fluids that weren’t blood. Saliva and other fluids became more important than before.

The word “standard” in standard precautions isn’t meant to convey a sense of basics. Instead, it was designed to mark a new standard for safety guidelines.

Modern Usage

In recent years, standard precautions have grown to be the main recommendation from many sources. Some fields recommend universal precautions but expand the set of fluids to cover relevant fluids for the profession.

At the same time, many people still need help following universal precautions. Some workers might not have the proper equipment to follow the guidelines. Others might have missed crucial training.

These days, health precautions are not limited to the workplace. Flu epidemics (and the current pandemic) have placed new responsibilities on everyday people.

This includes people who aren’t used to following special precautions. And it expands the places where people need to use them. It’s no longer just the workplace—now, people need to be safe at home and in public spaces.

What Changes During a Pandemic?

In general, pandemics come with stronger needs for public health guidelines. Years before we knew about the COVID-19 pandemic, experts prepared for the possibility of a pandemic.

They sometimes recommended universal precautions at a minimum in the case of normal viruses like the seasonal flu. But they made sure to note that things would change in the case of a pandemic flu. During COVID-19, standard precautions have become the new minimum.

Some people are even calling for a new set of pandemic guidelines for COVID-19. This could be a promising turn of events for public safety.

The basic elements of universal precautions are as important now as ever. People can have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic, so it makes sense to treat all fluids as if they might be contagious.

Transmission-Based Precautions

Besides standard precautions and universal precautions, there are also transmission-based precautions. They can be paired with standard precautions for a stronger level of protection.

Workers often use transmission-based precautions when they know a patient has a certain illness. Then the guidelines go back to standard precautions if the patient recovers.

For the coronavirus, most patients need to wait 10 days after their first symptoms and 24 hours after their last fever in order to go back to normal precautions. They also need to show an improvement in symptoms.

Get Educated in Order to Get Prepared!

When you first start learning about pathogen safety, knowing your way around standard precautions vs. universal precautions can go a long way. For both, the basic idea is to assume that a fluid is infectious whether or not you’re certain. This way, you can protect yourself and others from the widest range of risks.

Have you had to learn a new set of precautions for your workplace, school, or home? Tell us your story in the comments below!

How Universal Precautions Improve Safety During COVID

In this age of COVID-19, public health has gone from a niche topic to a nightly news mainstay. All of a sudden, people everywhere have to learn about virus transmission and what measures to take to protect themselves and each other from the disease.

Understandably, this can be a bit of a shock. People who have never had to think much about face masks and bodily fluids before are now following new recommendations that change as the pandemic unfolds. To get a basic understanding of pathogen prevention, many people are looking to some safety guidelines that have been around for decades: universal precautions.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what this term means. I’ll walk you through what universal precautions are and why they’re relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bit of Universal Precautions Training

What are universal precautions? Before I go any further, let me make sure you have a good handle on the basics of these safety guidelines.

Universal precautions came about as an official way to recommend safety measures when working with people who might be infected with a dangerous disease. Under these precautions, workers started to treat all relevant fluids as if they were contaminated, even if no tests had been run yet. Universal precautions include equipment, like masks and gloves, as well as proper safety procedures, like regular decontamination.

Official organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are some of the main authorities on universal precautions and how they’re used today.

Universal Precautions in the Age of COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, universal precautions were mostly geared toward professionals in various fields that dealt with bodily fluids. These included healthcare workers, first responders, and tattooists. People who weren’t part of those fields didn’t feel a strong need to learn about special protections against disease transmission.

These days, though, everything has changed. As I’ll explain in the next section, universal precautions are focused on blood and specific fluids, like semen. But during this pandemic, even the saliva and nasal fluid from a sneeze can be a serious risk.

This widens the number of professions who need to learn about pathogen safety precautions. If I had to list the fields where people might expect to come into contact with human blood on a regular basis, I would run out at some point. But the fields where someone might sneeze or cough are, well, pretty much any field.

You don’t even need to work a job to be at risk of COVID-19 transmission by these fluids. For this reason, universal precautions have gone from a work-based set of guidelines to general guidelines for anyone and everyone.

Universal vs. Standard Precautions

The creation of universal precautions marked a big change in health precautions at the workplace, but people didn’t stop there. Since the establishment of universal precautions, new versions have popped up, including standard precautions, transmission-based precautions, droplet precautions, and airborne precautions.

All of these guidelines build on the foundation of universal precautions to bring together special recommendations for different situations. For example, standard precautions are more comprehensive than universal precautions, and transmission-based precautions are an additional measure on top of those. For people new to the concept, though, universal precautions are a good place to start.

Masks and Droplet Transmission

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an extremely important aspect of universal precautions. And this equipment isn’t just to make people feel clean. Each piece of PPE is specially designed to protect against different types of disease transmission.

When it comes to COVID-19, one of the most visible pieces of PPE is the face mask. These protect against droplet transmission of the virus. If someone who has COVID-19 sneezes or coughs in public, a face mask can keep those droplets of fluid from reaching other people.

Universal precautions have gotten some updates during the pandemic. For example, experts are recommending that people stay at least six feet apart from each other whenever possible. You might not think a sneeze would go that far, but those tiny droplets do indeed reach those distances when proper PPE isn’t used.

Together, mask use and social distancing provide multiple layers of protection. If one of those fails, the other can act as a second barrier to infection.

Gloves and Contact Transmission

Another important example of PPE is the use of gloves to provide a clean, waterproof layer between a person and a potentially contaminated fluid. Like most things about universal precautions, these have gone from a profession-specific recommendation to a recommendation for any everyday person.

One of the ways the coronavirus can spread is through person-to-person contact. Shaking someone’s hand or handing someone an object can lead to contact transmission of the virus. Gloves protect against this by providing a barrier—and they can also protect against virus transmission through surfaces like doorknobs.

One thing to keep in mind here is that gloves are meant to be used for specific purposes. If someone were to wear a pair of gloves all day, and even occasionally touch their face with those gloves, they would not be protecting themself very well from the coronavirus. People should replace gloves for new tasks.

And whether or not people use gloves, they should be washing their hands frequently with soap and warm water. Even if they used gloves, hand washing is an easy additional step that provides another layer of protection in case anything went wrong with the glove protocol.

Be Part of the Solution!

These are just a few of the ways universal precautions can give people guidance in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. During this pandemic, every person has a crucial role in preventing virus transmission, whether or not they work in a specialized field. This makes the current moment different from other times in public health history. Universal precautions have become something everyone is called to learn and practice.

Not everyone has all the proper equipment to follow these safety recommendations exactly, but they can do their best to make smart choices. If you’ve come across difficulties in trying to follow pandemic precautions, tell me your story in the comments below!

What Are Universal Precautions and How Can They Help During the COVID Pandemic?

Universal precautions have been around since the 1980s, but the current COVID-19 pandemic has made them more important than ever.

What are universal precautions? They’re a set of guidelines for preventing disease transmission. And they’ve led to other important sets of precautions for the modern age.

Public health professionals tell us that the pandemic may last until the later part of 2021, and the effects could last even longer. At the same time, many workers are bracing for reopening processes. Employees who aren’t used to following medical precautions, like workers at restaurants and schools, all of a sudden have to study up on disease prevention.

The good news is that there is a lot of information available for people who would like to learn. Universal precautions are a great starting point for people who are learning how to protect themselves and others from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll go through some of the main elements of the pandemic and how safety precautions can help.

COVID-19 Transmission Risks

The reason experts are urging people to stay at home, wear masks, and avoid contact with each other is to prevent the multiple modes of virus transmission. People still disagree on whether airborne transmission could be a significant route of COVID-19 transmission, but in the meantime, there’s still contact and droplet transmission to worry about.

And in public spaces like sidewalks and large buildings, there are plenty of surfaces that can spread the coronavirus as well. When people touch crosswalk signs and doors, they could be spreading infection without even realizing it.

Surfaces

The coronavirus can “survive” for some time outside of the body before it degrades. Someone who touches a contaminated table might then rub their eye, giving the virus an entry point into their body.

I put “survive” in quotes because viruses are not technically alive. They cannot reproduce outside of the host (in this case, a human body), so they have a limited shelf life once they exit the body.

Experts say that the coronavirus can last for hours and even days on various surfaces. But this doesn’t mean they’re infectious the whole time. While it’s good to disinfect frequently used surfaces like doorknobs, the contents of mail packages have usually lost any potential risk of virus transmission during the time of transit.

Contact Transmission

People can also transmit the coronavirus through direct contact, like a hug or handshake. This is why current social distancing measures recommend against any unnecessary physical contact.

Droplet Transmission

And then there are the classic coughs and sneezes. When someone who has COVID-19 does one of these things, the coronavirus can travel through the air in droplets of fluid. This puts nearby people at risk for breathing in those droplets, thereby getting infected with the coronavirus.

Protection against droplet transmission is a major part of the reason people are wearing masks right now. They are protecting their own nose and mouth from breathing in other people’s droplets. And to a larger extent, they’re protecting others from their own saliva and nasal fluids if they happen to sneeze or cough.

What Are Universal Precautions?

In the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) introduced universal precautions as a way to protect against the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Hepatitis B, and other bloodborne pathogens. The idea behind this was to treat all blood as if it were contaminated with one of these pathogens.

This became an effective way to control spread and cut down on unnecessary decision-making. Rather than trying to figure out whether the blood was contaminated or not, now workers just assumed it was.

These precautions are a set of guidelines about how to prevent exposure to contaminated blood. Recommendations include personal protective equipment (PPE), special disposal containers, and regular decontamination. Masks, gloves, and hand washing are all part of universal precautions.

At the start, universal precautions focused on blood and bloodborne diseases. Certain other fluids were included as well, as I’ll describe in the next section. Since then, the CDC has built on the basics of universal precautions by releasing new standard precautions and transmission-based precautions.

What Do Universal Precautions Cover?

Many fluids, like urine, are not covered under universal precautions. This is because these fluids were not significant sources of risk for HIV and other diseases people were focusing on during the 1980s and 90s. The newer standard precautions cover a wider variety of fluids, and in this way, they’re more comprehensive.

Rather than relying on universal precautions alone, these days many professionals use a combination of other sets of precautions. For example, the CDC now has something called transmission-based precautions for people with “known or suspected infections.”

Universal precautions, as well as the newer sets of precautions that followed, protect everyone in the situation. They protect healthcare workers and other professionals from getting infected by patients and clients. And they also protect patients and clients from getting infected by each other or the workers.

As an extreme example, imagine if nurses did not use a new needle for each patient after giving a shot. This would be a definite violation of universal precautions—and common sense—and would put new patients at risk of bloodborne infection. This basic thought process is behind the guidelines for frequent decontamination and other elements of universal precautions.

Have Precautions Changed During the Pandemic?

The answer is yes. In almost every situation, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for safety measures.

These days, newer guidelines like standard precautions and droplet precautions are even stronger than universal precautions. Some health agencies have explicit recommendations to switch from universal precautions to one of these stronger sets of precautions in the case of a pandemic.

Still, some people are failing to follow even universal precautions. Learning about what these precautions entail is an excellent way to get started on the basics of disease prevention.

Some people are even calling for new “pandemic precautions” or special COVID-19 precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll see whether these take hold, but in the meantime, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the concept of widespread precautions.

Protect Yourself and Each Other

Knowing about universal precautions is an excellent way to understand how to prevent the various ways COVID-19 can spread. These layers of protection may have come about as a response to bloodborne diseases in the 80s, but they’re relevant as ever now. Next time someone asks you, “What are universal precautions?” now you’ll be ready with an answer.

How have you set up precautions for your home and workplace? Let me know in the comments below!

What Are Universal Precautions? Everything You Need to Know

When people hear the phrase “bloodborne infectious diseases,” they might think this is something only scientists who work in an infectious disease lab have to be concerned about.

But protection against bloodborne pathogens is important for a wide range of professionals, from tattooists, piercers, first responders, maintenance workers, and healthcare workers. And even if you’re a bystander witnessing a health emergency, you might need to know how to protect yourself against contamination.

This is where universal safety precautions come in. They’re a set of guidelines to help control the transmission of disease. These precautions focus on blood and a few other fluids, but they’ve paved the way for stronger guidelines as well.

Let me walk you through the basics of when to use universal precautions and what they entail.

The Origins of Universal Precautions

Safety and hygiene have been important elements in the medical field ever since people first learned of contamination. But it wasn’t until 1985 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) introduced a set of explicit safety guidelines called universal precautions.

This happened in response to the HIV epidemic of the time, which could be spread from person to person through fluids. Universal precautions, then, focused on controlling the transmission of diseases spread by bodily fluids like blood.

These days, there is also the concept of “standard precautions,” which cover even more situations than universal precautions. But whether a person is following standard precautions or universal precautions, they will use many of the same basic measures.

Though universal precautions training is quite comprehensive, it’s now less comprehensive than other guidelines like standard precautions or field-specific precautions. This doesn’t mean it’s fallen out of relevance, though. It’s just more of an entry point into the modern world of safety guidelines.

In fact, stronger sets of guidelines often build off of universal precautions. So whichever set of guidelines people follow, they will likely have to learn about universal precautions at some point.

When to Use Universal Safety Precautions

Bloodborne pathogens like HIV and Hepatitis B raise the risk level higher than normal. When someone doesn’t know whether these risks are present or not, it’s good practice to treat all blood as if it contains these pathogens. This is what I mean by universal precautions.

Universal precautions for infection control have to do with blood and certain fluids like cerebrospinal fluid or semen. They do not apply to other fluids like sweat or urine unless those fluids are visibly contaminated with blood.

And though the precautions don’t apply to unbroken skin, it might be hard for a medical provider or first responder to know whether there are small breaks in the skin. What it comes down to is whether there’s a possible risk of infection through blood.

Universal precautions include a mix of common-sense guidelines, like hand washing, and specialized gear, like personal protective equipment. Together, these provide multiple levels of barriers against contamination by blood or certain other fluids.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Ever since the spread of COVID-19, the term “PPE” has gone from a specialized term to everyday vocabulary. People understand that special pieces of equipment like masks and gloves are important to reduce transmission of a virus.

But PPE has been around for a while, and it’s an important step for universal precautions against any type of pathogen, virus or not.

Medical professionals and first responders often have some kind of PPE handy. They know they’ll need to use universal safety precautions quite regularly. For people administering first aid or bystanders, though, PPE might be hard to find.

This is why it’s a good idea to include PPE in first aid kits in the first place—you never know when you’re going to need it.

Glove Safety

In order to follow universal precautions, it’s not enough to just own and use the protective gear. People need to be able to use the gear correctly. Here, let’s talk about one of the most common and visible aspects of safety precautions: gloves.

Some people who are new to universal precautions or who are having an absent-minded moment might take off their gloves by pulling from the fingertips. Not only does this make the glove stick to their hand more—it is not an example of proper universal precautions.

The correct, sanitary way to remove gloves is to pull up from the base of the glove (around the wrist), turning the glove inside out along the way. This way, there is no threat of contact between bare skin and the outside of the glove.

In fact, this inside-out maneuver is good practice not just for gloves but for anything people might wear in a high-risk situation. Turning protective clothes inside out during removal is an excellent way to keep hazardous substances away from human contact.

Decontamination, Not Just Cleaning

When people know they are going to work near human fluids, they know cleaning is important. But when they follow universal safety precautions, the level of cleaning has to match the assumed risk level.

People who use universal precautions have to decontaminate surfaces after every use. This means they need to use cleaning products that kill pathogens. It’s not enough to just stop the spread of spills—remember that universal precautions treat all fluids as if they were infectious.

If there’s been a spill involving blood, the first step is to clean up the spill using protective barriers and PPE. The next step is to immediately decontaminate any area that might be affected.

Special Disposal

Labs and medical facilities have special receptacles for disposing of things like needles. This is for a few reasons.

First, exposure to these items has the potential to spread infection. If someone disposes of a contaminated needle in a regular, open trash bin and then accidentally brushes by it later, they can spread infectious fluids. Safe receptacles have closed lids and are clearly marked so people know to be cautious around them.

In addition, items like needles are quite sharp and may break through the skin of a healthy person, infecting them. And even if the needles aren’t contaminated, the risk of minor injury is still something people want to avoid.

And then there is the concept of immediate disposal. As I describe in the next section, needles are examples of things that should be tossed out and replaced after every use. When there’s a special receptacle, people don’t have to carry needles around until they find a proper way to dispose of them.

Special disposable bins aren’t always available—for example, in a health emergency on the street. For this reason, universal precautions call on people to treat all trash at the scene as if it contains sharp items like needles.

Things to Change Out After Every Use

I’ve gone over decontamination after every use, but sometimes even this level of cleaning is not enough. There are many circumstances where it’s better to dispose of a material and get a replacement.

Some examples include gloves and disposable masks. And if a patient or subject is using any kind of barrier between them and a surface (like a table or seat), these are usually changed out after every use.

This isn’t always obvious, so it’s an important piece of universal precautions to learn about. While it would seem unsanitary to use the same needle twice, other items like barriers and coverings are less intuitive. Special professions that put workers at risk of bloodborne pathogens, like the body art field, need to prepare for business by knowing which pieces of their equipment are single-use only.

Hand Washing

Like PPE, hand washing has been on many people’s minds since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And like PPE, this is a practice that people should follow even when there isn’t a widespread pandemic to watch out for.

Universal precautions provide routine protection against deadly diseases. While some aspects of these precautions require special gear, hand washing is an example of something everyone can do. If someone does happen to come into contact with a pathogen, hand washing prevents that pathogen from entering the body.

Hand washing is an important step even if someone is wearing gloves or using other protective barriers in their work. Once people take their gloves off, they can get straight to washing their hands. 

The nice thing about universal precautions is that they build in plenty of redundant measures for additional safety. Even if a mistake happens somewhere along the way, there is still a high level of protection.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Universal safety precautions are an excellent thing to learn for anyone who’s trying to learn the guidelines in their workplace. And they can also be great resources for bystanders and people administering first aid.

Staying safe might seem like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be. As long as people follow straightforward guidelines like universal precautions, they’ll be well-equipped for whatever lies ahead.

And when reading the information isn’t enough, there are video courses and trainings. Here at HIPAA Exams, we have special training bundles like the HIPAA and OSHA bloodborne pathogens bundle for healthcare workers. 

Universal Precautions vs Standard Precautions? Which One to Use

Both universal and standard precautions protect against the spread of disease. But when people first hear about universal precautions and standard precautions, they might assume that universal precautions are more widespread or harsher. In reality, neither is the case.

Standard precautions have actually taken the place of universal precautions in many scenarios, as a stronger alternative. So why this confusing terminology? Well, the answer might lie in the timing of when these guidelines came into the picture.

Learning the difference between universal precautions vs. standard precautions can help workers in all kinds of professions understand safety. And the safety isn’t just for the workers themselves. Following these guidelines can help protect patients, clients, and colleagues as well.

Here’s my basic overview of the difference between these different guidelines, especially given the pandemic we’re all living in right now.

The Beginnings of Universal Precautions

People started using universal precautions before the introduction of standard precautions. This might explain why the word “universal” is there when it’s actually less universal than the newer guidelines. Universal precautions aren’t so universal right now, but they were meant to be universal at the time.

Universal precautions came about in the 1980s as a response to HIV and Hepatitis B, two diseases that were often transmitted through blood and certain fluids like semen. Before these precautions were in place, people were already careful when treating a patient who had tested positive for either disease.

But that wasn’t enough. Because these bloodborne diseases had become so common, people started calling for a set of guidelines that workers could use in any circumstance, whether or not a patient had definitely tested positive.

The universal aspect of these guidelines was in the assumption of danger. Basically, rather than going into full safety mode when treating a patient who you know has HIV or another pathogen, the idea is to assume that anyone might have a bloodborne infectious disease. So the full safety mode would happen all the time, or universally.

The Beginnings of Standard Precautions

Aside from the term “universal,” the word “standard” in standard precautions is also a bit of a misnomer. Standard, in this case, does not mean that guidelines are less severe than universal precautions. The introduction of standard precautions was meant to usher in a new, higher standard for safety.

While universal precautions focused on bloodborne pathogens primarily, standard precautions applied to a wider variety of circumstances. They built on universal precautions but added new focuses, like respiratory disease.

For example, cough etiquette and efforts like “Cover Your Cough” are part of today’s standard precautions. While droplet and airborne transmission weren’t priorities during the time of universal precautions, it soon became clear that they were serious risks.

Which One is More Comprehensive?

Standard precautions are more comprehensive than universal precautions. This is because universal precautions are limited to blood and certain fluids like cerebrospinal fluid. Other fluids only fall under universal precautions if they visibly include contamination by blood.

These guidelines made sense at the beginnings of universal precautions because this was an era focused on the dangers of HIV and Hepatitis B. Fluids like urine were not a huge threat at this time because they did not contribute significantly to the spread of these diseases. Blood, on the other hand, was a major path of disease transmission.

Since then, though, fluids other than blood became more relevant. For example, nasal fluids and saliva contributed to the spread of airborne epidemics. Universal precautions needed an update that expanded its use to more situations.

For people who are looking for the most comprehensive guidelines, standard precautions are the way to go.

What Do These Precautions Entail?

I’ve talked about the difference between the comprehensiveness of universal vs. standard precautions, but what does this mean in real-life terms? What makes a set of guidelines more or less comprehensive?

Well, these precautions are a set of safety rules. They include guidelines for personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and goggles. And they tell workers how to handle potential biohazards like needles and contaminated surfaces.

These basics are present in both universal and standard safety precautions, but the situations they apply to are different. For example, both universal and standard safety precautions have guidelines about protective barriers against fluids. But universal precautions would apply to a smaller set of fluids than standard safety precautions.

Who Do These Guidelines Protect?

There are at least two ways to look at safety precautions. One is that this is a protection for the workers. If a workplace violates certain safety precautions, the employees there might be able to file a complaint.

For example, a job might require that employees use PPE in order to follow proper universal precautions or standard precautions. But if the workplace itself does not provide the PPE, workers might be able to make a complaint. They’re putting themselves at higher risk than their job should entail.

Another way to look at safety precautions is as a protection for the public. If a worker fails to properly decontaminate a surface according to proper precautions, they might be putting clients and patients in danger.

In practice, not everyone actually follows the safety precautions their workplace entails. This could be because they don’t take the risks seriously or because their workplace isn’t offering them enough protective gear. A recent observational study found that less than 30 percent of nurses and nursing assistants followed the PPE portion of their workplace safety precautions, compared to 100 percent of infectious disease physicians and 86.7 percent of maintenance workers.

Universal Precautions vs. Standard Precautions in the Workplace

Workplace safety organizations like OSHA sometimes give different recommendations than the CDC guidelines.

For example, sometimes OSHA recommends universal precautions as a minimum when the CDC recommends standard precautions. It’s important for workers to know the difference. If they feel they aren’t being protected by OSHA’s recommendations, they might find the CDC guidelines better suited for their job.

In some cases, OSHA recommendations seem more relaxed when they actually aren’t. OSHA sometimes does this by putting forth universal precautions but expanding certain parts. I’ll explain an instance of this in the field of dentistry in a later section.

One benefit of using standard precautions is that they pair well with a set of additional guidelines called transmission-based precautions. The CDC calls these the “second tier of basic infection control,” and employers and managers can use them in conjunction with standard precautions.

Precautions During the Pandemic

Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. While some occupations and situations call for universal precautions in normal circumstances, a pandemic calls for more severe measures.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) require universal precautions for the regular flu but standard precautions for a pandemic flu. These measures have been in place for at least a decade, long before we knew about the pandemic we are currently living through.

For this particular pandemic, though, the CDC has released changes to its existing guidelines to respond to the current state of disease transmission. On July 15th, 2020, they updated their guidelines to raise concerns about protective eyewear. Specifically, they pointed out that eyewear with gaps (like safety glasses) are not fully protective.

Different Professions

Universal and standard precautions affect a wide variety of professions. These include body art professions like tattooists and body piercers. These workers know that they will encounter fluids like blood on a regular basis, so they have to take special care to make sure they remove the risk of disease of transmission.

Then there are the more obvious professions, like healthcare workers and first responders.

In the dental profession, sometimes people recommend universal precautions. But in this case, there’s actually very little (if any) difference between universal and standard precautions in practice. This is because the fluids covered under universal precautions include OPIM, or “Other Potentially Infectious Materials.”

Though saliva is usually not considered part of OPIM, it is an OPIM in the field of dentistry. This means the comprehensiveness of standard precautions doesn’t actually add something that wasn’t there to begin with.

Other Kinds of Precautions

There are many other sets of guidelines besides universal and standard precautions. These include droplet precautions, airborne precautions, contact precautions, and full barrier precautions.

These days, universal precautions are very rarely if ever recommended on their own. Standard precautions have become the new baseline (hence “standard”), while other sets of guidelines add to these standard rules.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are calling for a new set of pandemic precautions. They are calling their proposed changes “universal pandemic precautions” or “standard pandemic precautions.”

Stay Safe Out There!

Pandemic or not, safety guidelines are extremely important tools in the fight against disease transmission. And so is learning about them!

People who haven’t looked into the difference between universal precautions vs. standard precautions might not realize that their names are misleading. They might implement universal precautions in the workplace because they assume these are more, well, universal. But with the right understanding of how these guidelines came about, workers can understand what they’re signing up for.

And for a more in-depth look at bloodborne pathogens and how to protect against them, you can sign up for our comprehensive online course.