Prison guards in Alberta are overdosing on fentanyl during searches and there are serious concerns the next exposure could be fatal.
In the past three weeks, seven guards at two institutions have been exposed to the highly toxic drug. Three were hospitalized after Narcan — a medicine used to treat opioid overdoses — was administered, according to the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
"We've had some significant exposures, some officers have been sent to hospital in an ambulance," said Ryan DeBack, a vice-president with the union.
"It's a huge problem."
Bowden officer rushed to hospital
The latest incident took place at the Bowden Institution on July 21 when a guard was searching a vehicle in the parking lot of the prison, according to a source.
Despite wearing a surgical-type mask and gloves, the guard in his 20s was exposed to what's believed to be fentanyl, an opioid 100 times more potent than heroin. Co-workers administered Narcan after the officer lost consciousness.
EMS confirms a prison official in his late 20s was taken to hospital in Innisfail.
"People are wondering: when's the next time that my coworker or even myself are going to go down?" said DeBack.
Fentanyl being sent to inmates via mail
At the Edmonton Institution in the past month, six officers were exposed to what is believed to be fentanyl while searching inmates' mail.
At least two doses of Narcan were administered and two officers were hospitalized, according to DeBack.
In June, officers intercepted a shipment of fentanyl worth $13,000 destined for an Edmonton Institution inmate.
"It's so prevalent among the drug culture … this stuff is everywhere," said DeBack. "And unfortunately our clientele that we watch over is not exactly at times known for their sound judgment."
New fentanyl protocol in prisons
DeBack says the union is working with Correctional Service Canada to implement practices and policies that will mitigate the risks officers are facing.
The correctional service refused to do an interview but did provide a written statement to CBC News saying employee safety is a "fundamental priority" to the organization
"Despite all the best precautions, there may be rare occasions when someone is accidentally exposed to fentanyl or other highly toxic substances."
The correctional service says it issued a protocol last month to its frontline staff dealing with the handling, testing, storage, and disposal of fentanyl.
Latex gloves, surgical-style masks and safety goggles are provided to those frontline workers.
'How do we do our jobs effectively?'
But DeBack says the Narcan needs to be more readily available to officers, and the pressures to conduct speedy searches could be lessened in order to make a more safe working environment.
Fentanyl is so potent, a dose the size of a grain or two of sand can be fatal. Add that to the fact that it's often mixed with other drugs and can be absorbed through the skin and you've got a potentially deadly set of risk factors for prison staff.
But it's hard to know when fentanyl is present, which means it's hard to identify situations that should involve lockdowns, slower searches and heavier safety equipment. Often officers are walking into searches blind.
"How do we do our jobs effectively; how do we protect the inmates, how do we protect the Canadian public without us being seriously injured or worse?" asks DeBack, who says it's not feasible on a regular basis for officers to do the job wearing biohazard or Tyvex suits.
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