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When Fentanyl Comes to Work

Occupational health and safety concerns for those whose occupation is Albertans’ health and safety

Oct 05, 2018

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Occupational health and safety concerns for those whose occupation is Albertans'' health and safety

It is an epidemic no one can stop talking about.

Over one July weekend, eight people incarcerated at the Edmonton Remand Centre fell ill to suspected fentanyl and carfentanil overdoses. One of those people, Maxim Baril-Blouin, died in his cell, joining the increasing number of Canadians succumbing to this public health emergency.

From January to June of this year, 330 Canadians have suffered fentanyl-related deaths. Last year, the toll spiked at 579, a rise from 354 in 2016, 256 in 2015, 116 in 2014, and just 66 in 2013. This drastic increase prompted the Government of Alberta to create an Opioid Emergency Response Commission in May 2017, whose goal is to educate Albertans and create new tools to address the situation.

In July, the commission issued six new recommendations aimed at alleviating the opioid crisis in Alberta communities.

One encourages the government to expand treatment and transition options for people struggling with opioid addictions in provincial correctional facilities. This recommendation endorses the creation of evidence-based, standardized approaches for drug treatment court programs, which provide rehabilitation and treatment for offenders who commit crimes to support their drug addictions.

"The Alberta government has an important role to play here," said James Hart, AUPE Vice-President and chair of the union''s Occupational Health and Safety committee. "We have to ensure that correctional facilities like the Edmonton Remand Centre are safe for everybody."

But while the commission encourages the province to enact these policy recommendations, the ongoing effort to address this crisis is most often fought by ordinary public service workers.

"AUPE members are on the front lines of this issue, and the recent incident at the Edmonton Remand Centre shows just how challenging it can be," said Hart. "Together, nursing staff and correctional peace officers saved seven lives that weekend."

Many of these front-line workers go to work knowing that what they do is often not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, the opioid crisis constitutes a serious workplace health and safety issue that must be meaningfully addressed.

"We must be prepared to take the workers'' and inmates'' safety seriously," said Hart.

In response to the crisis, firefighters, peace officers and police officers have been given the authority to administer naloxone, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids, by injection. Previously, only regulated health professionals like paramedics and nursing staff could do this.

Hart welcomed the recommendations made by the Opioid Emergency Response Commission and hopes they will be used to protect the people suffering from the effects of these drugs and the workers tasked with protecting them. He added that public health emergencies like this one affect all Albertans.

"Making naloxone more available was a start, but we need to do more to protect these workers," said Hart. "Increased funding for evidence-based solutions would save more lives and take some of the pressure off workers."

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