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Bloodborne Pathogens and Fentanyl Exposure

Exposure to bloodborne pathogens and fentanyl have increased the risks of law enforcement work, but using the proper personal protective equipment can help reduce these risks. Law enforcement officers encounter more and more individuals either using or possessing drugs, and police officers, along with fire and emergency medical services, are responding to more calls for service dealing with a person who has overdosed.  

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration defines fentanyl as “a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic.” 

The DEA also notes that fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine, and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. 

The dangers of fentanyl have gained much attention so many governmental entities have established resources to address its impact. The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control offers a program through their Bureau of Emergency Medical Services that provides training in the use of the opioid antidote naloxone. There are two training programs — the Law Enforcement Officer Naloxone program for police, and the Reducing Opioid Loss of Life program for firefighters. As of March 2021, the programs have trained more than 10,000 police officers and 1,700 firefighters.  

Although there may not be a documented fentanyl overdose linked to public safety in the United States, it doesn’t mean that there are no dangers in being exposed to fentanyl. Encounters with fentanyl, such as skin contact or inhalation may cause serious effects. As rates of drug use grow, so too does the risk of exposure to public safety personnel.  

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers several recommendations to help prevent emergency responders’ exposures to illicit drugs, including fentanyl:  

  • Wear nitrile gloves when illicit drugs may be present. 

  • Wear respiratory protection if powdered illicit drugs are present or suspected. 

  • Avoid tasks that may cause illicit drugs to become airborne. 

  • Train officers to not touch their eyes, nose or mouth after touching contaminated surfaces. 

Additionally, public safety personnel should receive yearly training in handling bloodborne pathogens. They should also be issued naloxone and puncture-resistant gloves as part of their PPE. If an exposure occurs, they must be transported to the hospital for a medical evaluation. They should receive a medical document allowing them to return to full duty capacity.   

For additional information, contact Chris Radcliff, public safety loss control consultant, at 803.354.4764