Engineering Safety and the Colour of Blood

This March article should probably reflect a shade of green. It is the month, after all, when everyone Irish, whether or not they reside on their beautiful Emerald Isle, echoes this hue in celebration of St Patrick’s Day. Instead, however, these words will be spattered by another primary colour - red, blood red.

(We do, however, wish all who celebrate it, a very happy St Pat’s Day for the 17th March).

IDC and the EIT have begun the rather onerous tradition of three to six monthly blood donations. It is rather startling to note that, despite the discomfort that accompanies this magnanimous gesture, the faces that leave on the kindly Red Cross bus are without fear or loathing. If anything the act of giving seems to lend them a quite different air. If the team did not return with their elbows neatly bandaged it could otherwise be assumed that they had been climbing into a party bus? This is no doubt assisted by the delectable snacks awaiting them at the Red Cross depot, the break from work and the camaraderie of being one of the donating dream team.

You may well wonder how this custom originated here at IDC and the EIT, and why it took hold. Apart from the inherent generosity of our team of donators, another motivator is our community-minded CEO, Steve Mackay. But the other stimulus, a far more emotive and personal one, is a little girl. Our IT guru, Kim Li, has a beautiful niece who depends entirely on blood transfusions to survive.

Even before she was born doctors had determined that she suffered from a genetic blood disorder, thalassaemia. The result is a deficit in the production of haemoglobin – that part of red blood cells essential for oxygenating the body. To keep her well she requires monthly blood transfusions, which she accepts stoically, and her mother and father with enormous gratitude.

One need only extrapolate from this single case to realise the dire need in the medical world for blood donations. An essential problem for many first-time donators, however, is the fear of needles, but beyond this; phlebotomists, nurses and other health care workers are in constant danger of needle stick accidents. (These cost the UK National Health Service, for example, about £650,000 per injury). It is to this end that engineers have been flexing their muscles.

An example of this engineering muscle was sparked by a news item in the 1980’s during which a doctor was interviewed. He had contracted AIDS from a needle stick injury. It was not his image, however, but his words which motivated Thomas J Shaw to act. The doctor was scathing of engineers; complaining that design engineers were insensitive and unresponsive to the daily dangers faced by frontline healthcare workers. In response, Shaw, a mechanical and structural engineer, spent twelve months developing preliminary design concepts. And then, after receiving some grant money to further develop these designs, he was able to embark on clinical trials. Shaw eventually patented the automated retraction syringe. It involves a friction ring mechanism which causes the contaminated needle to retract automatically from the patient into the barrel of the device, a feature which also prevents reuse. With this nifty and safe design he went on to win some big contracts, mainly in countries outside of his home in the USA. When it came to breaking into the the market at home, however, he came up against the monopolistic actions of a major needle industry maker (Refer to Mariah Blake’s article, Dirty Medicine). The latter part of this tale, it is certain, would not be unfamiliar to many design engineers and inventor!

In conclusion, we would like to wish you all a safe and colourful season, depending on your latitude; Spring or Autumn.