Radiographers and Workplace Safety
At first glance, the field of radiography looks like an appealing career path. There's interesting work, plentiful job opportunities and a good long-term outlook. But there's one concern you haven't been able to dislodge from your mind: Radiology equals radiation. Isn't that the stuff that mutates plants and gives unsuspecting lab workers superhuman powers?
What's the Risk?
Since the birth of the atomic bomb in World War II, "popular culture has encouraged people to be suspicious of exposure to radiation," says G. Donald Frey, PhD, a medical physicist and professor of radiology at the Medical University of South Carolina. But the reality is there's little to worry about. The risk of being injured or killed on the job in radiology-related professions is less than that risk in agriculture or construction, according to Frey.
"The dosage [of radiation] used in diagnostic radiography is very minimal," says Tricia Leggett, assistant professor and director of the radiologic technology program at Zane State College in Zanesville, Ohio. Laws require healthcare facilities to monitor the amount of radiation workers are exposed to on an ongoing basis to be sure the doses are never at unsafe levels. Those levels are determined in state legislation guided by research from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
Leggett says students wear "a little octagon-shaped badge with a piece of radiographic film that is sensitive to X-rays or radiation." Each month, the film in these badges is processed to determine how much radiation each student was exposed to and to ensure that it's within the safe levels.
Frey says the doses of radiation radiology professionals are exposed to are so small that in his facility, "most badges come back with no reading at all."
Leggett teaches students the principles of time, distance and shielding to ensure they keep themselves safe on the job. "They want to minimize the time they're exposed to the radiation, maximize the distance away from the source and maximize the shielding," she says.
Radiographers' work environments are designed for maximum safety. "The walls of the X-ray room have lead in them to make sure the radiation doesn't escape," Frey says. "The X-ray rooms have an operator's booth, which is also shielded so they can stand at the operator's control panel and not be exposed to radiation."
Radiology professionals also benefit from advances in medical technology. Equipment is continually improved to reduce the dose of radiation given to patients, and "as a byproduct of that, the people who work with it get exposed less," Frey says. He points out some of the procedures radiologic technologists perform, such as ultrasounds and MRIs, produce no radiation at all.
Often, radiographers must address patients' safety concerns. Leggett says her students ask how to respond when patients want to know why their radiology tech goes behind a barrier during their X-rays. She advises them to explain that they're "around this daily, so to maintain our safety we go behind the lead barrier."
Touting the profession, Frey says radiologic technology "allows people to serve the needs of sick people, it allows them to work with a variety of very interesting, high tech technologies, and it's a safe profession to work in."