Pushing reform in light of opioid crisis

Posted May 28, 2019 by

Since the incident at Ross Correctional Institution (RCI) where 28 OCSEA members were exposed to fentanyl and heroin, OCSEA activists have been pushing hard to ensure increased prison worker safety in light of Ohio’s major opioid crisis.

Following the exposure incident, a Fentanyl Task Force was created with labor and management representatives to look at what could be done to better protect staff in the event of another mass exposure situation. Additionally, subcommittees with appointed union leaders were established to review problem areas like mailrooms and entry, as well as policy changes regarding use of equipment and handling the substance.

Now a new state bill, introduced this spring and supported by OCSEA, would require that the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) and “self-insuring” public employers pay for ALL Corrections and Juvenile Corrections employees who have sustained injury in the event of such an opioid exposure. Ohio House Bill 81 closes a loophole in state law that currently requires only firefighters, police officers and EMTs be automatically covered by workers’ compensation when exposed to dangerous substances such as fentanyl.

If the bill becomes law, it will cover any employee who works in a “detention facility,” which would include employees in state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities.

James Skaggs, who was working on the unit at Ross where the exposure took place, said about 25 minutes after the initial incident, he felt his arms tingle and then his legs go out from under him. “I was like T-Rex,” he said. He fell to the ground and doesn’t remember what happened for the next two hours.

James, a Correction Officer for the last four years, was one of the first two exposed to the deadly drug and required extensive medical treatment at a nearby hospital, including multiple doses of Narcan, which reverses the symptoms of exposure. “I was throwing up, dry heaving, but I don’t remember any of that,” he said. He woke up with bruising on his chest from medical teams trying to treat him. “This was no joke,” he said.

Having had a close family member die from a drug overdose, James has seen first-hand the damage caused by drug use. “That fentanyl made me so mad,” said James, who is also an Iraq War veteran. He says his military experience and his personal history have helped keep him laser focused on rooting out drugs and drug activity in the prison. “That’s what I care about: drugs and shanks,” he said. “I know what they do.”

In the aftermath of the Ross exposure, James believes the creation of a special drug task force could help him and his coworkers get the resources needed to find drugs before incidents like this happen again. So far, action plans have been developed at the institution level that include training regarding mass exposure. Additional Narcan has been ordered as have ductless hood systems for some mail rooms. New policies and protocols have been released regarding exposure and handling of fentanyl, and committees have reviewed detection devices such as drones and body scanners.

“All of this is a step in the right direction to help our sisters and brothers in correction facilities fight this horrific epidemic that is plaguing our prisons and our communities,” said Josh Melott, RCI Chap. 7130 President.

Read more member spotlights in the union magazine.