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3 simple ways to protect yourself from drugs and germs on the job

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By Keith Graves for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Until 2014, I had gone 25 years without getting sick from a suspect. I wasn’t a germophobe, but I felt I did a pretty good job at protecting myself from the cooties that infect so many people we encounter on duty. Whenever I encountered someone with TB, I would dutifully put on my mask and wear nitrile gloves. If I searched a heroin addict, I would always clean up afterwards with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Unseen microscopic threats can attack cops on multiple fronts, from skin contact with bacteria like MRSA to inhaling airborne particles of potent narcotics like fentanyl. Now, more than ever, it’s important to protect yourself on the job. (image/iStock)
Unseen microscopic threats can attack cops on multiple fronts, from skin contact with bacteria like MRSA to inhaling airborne particles of potent narcotics like fentanyl. Now, more than ever, it’s important to protect yourself on the job. (image/iStock)

My luck came to an end as I was helping animal control serve a search warrant at an apartment. The suspect was less than clean, and I ultimately contracted MRSA from that suspect during the investigation. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is an infection, like staph – but it's tougher to treat than most strains of bacteria because it's resistant to some commonly used antibiotics.

I was hospitalized for four days trying to fight that infection.

Beware contaminated surfaces

Back in the day, the worst thing that could happen to you in the field was to get stuck by a dirty needle during a search. Now, we have threats like MRSA, which can survive for weeks on contaminated surfaces, including countertops and steering wheels – which is just about any place a person or contaminated item has touched.

We also have threats other than bacteria. Fentanyl has poisoned a number of officers in the past few months. Just like MRSA, fentanyl can be found scattered on drug paraphernalia, packaging material or in vehicles that you are searching.

Then there are viral threats like hepatitis. Hepatitis is a hardy virus that survives in the open air and can last on surfaces, like the back seat of your patrol car. There are vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C. If you contract hepatitis, you could be afflicted with decreased liver function, cirrhosis or cancer.

In October, California declared a state of emergency over a statewide hepatitis outbreak among drug addicts and homeless individuals – two segments of the population that street cops deal with on a regular basis – after 18 people died from the disease.

These threats attack us on multiple fronts, from skin contact (like MRSA) to inhalation threats (like fentanyl). Now, more than ever, it is important for you to protect yourself. Here are three simple ways you can protect yourself from these threats and decontaminate your equipment.

1. Wear proper protective equipment

Our PPE has changed with these new threats. We used to be satisfied wearing latex gloves, but that doesn’t go far enough anymore. Unfortunately, latex gloves don’t provide enough protection from fentanyl. It’s time to ditch the latex gloves and switch to nitrile, which experts recommend because they are thicker.

You should also wear a fit-tested N95 mask to protect your respiratory system. Not only does it protect you from inhalation threats like fentanyl, it also protects you from TB and other airborne viruses.

2. Decontaminate any equipment that might be contaminated

Say you arrested a suspect that has MRSA and put him in your back seat. The patrol car will need to be decontaminated. So will your handcuffs and maybe even your clothes. How are you going to do that? After getting MRSA, I want more than just soap and water to decontaminate my clothing.

Decon7 Systems makes a suite of products that will decontaminate everything from your car to your laundry. The D7 BDAS+ is a portable, ready-to-use biological decontaminant accelerated spray that is safe to use on a variety of surfaces and neutralizes contaminants from fentanyl to hepatitis in less than 10 minutes. You can use the BDAS+ unit to spray down the back seat of your patrol car to kill bacteria and viruses, as well as to decontaminate your equipment.

You can wash your uniform with D7 Laundry, which is used by the U.S. military, to neutralize any narcotics or germs that you may have picked up. D7 is colorfast, biodegradable and will not degrade fabrics.

3. Be cautious with hand sanitizers

Hand sanitizers come in different formulas. When I came in contact with my suspect that had MRSA, I dutifully washed down with my department-issued hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, I did not know that my agency had stopped using alcohol-based hand sanitizer because someone complained about the harshness of the alcohol on their skin.

Not having an alcohol-based hand sanitizer allowed the MRSA bacteria to stay alive on my skin. To avoid this happening to you, make sure that your hand sanitizer is alcohol-based.

However – and this is incredibly important – if you suspect that you are at a scene where fentanyl can be found, do not use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer! Alcohol-based hand sanitizers will accelerate the absorption of fentanyl into your skin by 100 times.

If you need to decontaminate your skin from any unknown substance, including possible fentanyl exposure, you should wash the affected skin with soap and water for 15 minutes. I recommend that officers keep a gallon of water in their trunk, along with soap, for just this purpose. Most officers already have a gallon jug of water in their trunk to decontaminate suspects exposed to OC (aka pepper spray or oleoresin capsicum), so you can kill two birds with one stone with this tactic.

It is a brave new world for officers on the street. We can still do our jobs while we deal with these threats, but we have to be smarter about protecting ourselves and decontaminating our equipment.

Don’t be afraid of these invisible threats – just make sure that you protect yourself while you are out protecting your community.

About the Author

Keith Graves is a retired police sergeant who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. He was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a narcotics detective and a narcotics unit supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California colleges, and he currently consults with POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith is the founder and president of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.

Contact Keith Graves

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