The province said on Friday that it would stockpile up to 55 million N95 respirators - specialized masks designed to protect wearers from airborne infections, such as SARS or avian influenza.
In a report on SARS, Justice Archie Campbell recommended the respirators which, some researchers say, provide better protection than standard surgical masks.
"It is tragically clear that health workers were not adequately protected," Campbell wrote.
Health Minister George Smitherman and Minister of Labour Steve Peters made the announcement at North York General Hospital, one of the places hit by SARS during the 2003 outbreak.
SARS killed 44 people, including two nurses and a doctor, and infected 375 in the Toronto area that spring. Of those infected, 45 per cent were healthcare workers.
"The purchase of N95 respirators means Ontario, based on the precautionary principle advised by Justice Campbell, has created a gold standard of protection for our front-line staff," Smitherman said.
Linda Haslam-Stroud, president of the Ontario Nurses Association, said nurses want N95 respirators available in hospitals in case of another life-threatening outbreak, particularly pandemic influenza.
The province also announced a new regulation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to make safety-engineered needles mandatory in all hospitals by Sept. 1, 2008.
Other healthcare facilities, such as long-term care homes and doctors' offices, must phase them in over the following two years.
Safety needles are designed to reduce needle-stick injuries, which can spread blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV from a patient to healthcare worker. Haslam-Stroud says nurses account for 58 per cent of the 33,000 needle-stick injuries in Ontario yearly.
(Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus.)
"These were two of the main issues front-line nurses have been asking the government to (act on) and we are happy they are doing it," Haslam-Stroud said. "It shows they respect the fact that we need to be provided with a safe work environment."
Rob Devitt, CEO of Toronto East General Hospital, said his hospital stopped using regular needles two years ago and saw a 20 per cent drop in needle-stick injuries after the first year and an 80 per cent drop after the second. He said many Ontario hospitals already have safety-engineered needles because studies show they reduce injuries and stress to health workers.
B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, have already made the safer needles mandatory; the U.S. made them law in 2001.
Centre-Left New Democratic Party's Shelley Martel noted that she had been fighting for the safer needles since 2005, but her two private member's bills died on the order paper.
(The Order Paper and Notice Paper is a document that guides the deliberations of the Senate and lists items of business currently before it.)
"I'm frankly appalled that it takes an election to force the McGuinty Liberals to protect health care workers," she said.
(Dalton James Patrick McGuinty is the Premier of the province.)