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Officer Drug Safety

Officers have become increasingly likely to encounter opioids when responding to emergencies. In response to concerns that officers could often be near a potentially hazardous substance, many agencies previously issued strong warnings about the danger of opioids. In recent years however, law enforcement agencies have begun to recognize that the danger presented from being near opioids in the field is less severe than initially reported. Medical professionals and studies have reported that the risk to first responders of clinically-significant, incidental exposure to fentanyl and other opioids when responding to a scene is low.

There are also some practical steps that officers should take to further minimize the risk from exposure to clinically-significant amounts of opioids in the field. Whenever officers suspect the presence of an opioid, such a fentanyl, they should conduct a risk assessment. This includes looking for the following signs:

  • Is a person unconscious and the cause unknown?

  • Are suspected drugs or paraphernalia visible?

  • What is the form and volume of suspected drugs?

Officers should assume that any white powder is fentanyl. If the presence of fentanyl or any synthetic opioid is suspected, after addressing the immediate health needs of individuals at the scene, personnel should contact the appropriate officials within their agency who have been trained to handle hazardous materials.

The most likely way for a first responder to be exposed to fentanyl is through brief skin exposure. Nitrile exam gloves can be an effective barrier to prevent skin exposure. If your skin is exposed to fentanyl, you should wash the area with water as quickly as possible. Do not use alcohol-based hand sanitizers or bleach; they do not effectively wash opioids off skin and may increase skin absorption of fentanyl. In the unusual circumstance of significant airborne suspension of powdered opioids, a properly fitted N95 respirator or P100 mask is likely to provide reasonable respiratory protection.

Interested in learning more?

PLS offers police online self-study legal training link: on a wide variety of practical issues to help police officers make good decisions in challenging situations.

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