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Opioid crisis creating new workplace hazards for Lethbridge funeral industry

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WATCH: As Canada deals with the ongoing opioid crisis, funeral homes have found themselves on the front line when a suspected overdose turns deadly. The opioid crisis is also presenting new dangers in their workplace. Tom Roulston explains – Feb 7, 2018

It’s a place families can turn to for closure in their time of grief but as Canada deals with an opioid crisis, funeral homes have found themselves on the front line when a suspected overdose turns deadly.

“Having families coming into our funeral home and going through the loss of a child, grandchild, great-grandchild even, it’s terrible,” said Travis Zentner, the business manager at Cornerstone Funeral Home in Lethbridge, Alta.

READ MORE: Alberta declares opioid public health crisis, announces $30M increase and new panel to address deaths

Zentner says he’s helping families plan memorials for overdose victims, on average, twice a month.

The circumstances of those deaths is also creating new hazards for himself and his staff.

“We’re using gloves, facemasks, covering our skin, things like that, basically so we don’t have any issues coming into contact with the drug,” Zentner explained.

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With opioid overdoses becoming more frequent, Zentner’s funeral home is in the process of bringing in naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose, to better protect his employees.

READ MORE: Edmonton firefighters have used naloxone 110 times in less than 1 year 

Right now, the Alberta Funeral Services Regulatory Board (AFSRB) says there are no official protocols when it comes to dealing with an overdose death, but it is working with Alberta Health Services to address industry concerns.

“Taking those questions and kind of looking at developing something that might be kind of a template or guide for funeral homes in general to be using if they’re dealing with these kinds of situations,” AFSRB Executive Director Karen Carruthers said.

AHS provided a statement to Global News:

“Though AHS Environmental Public Health is engaged with funeral home operators to provide standard training and education on their roles under the Public Health Act, AHS has not made any recommendation specific to fentanyl exposures in funeral homes, as exposure risk is not considered unique to this environment.

“The exposure risk would be considered the same as first responders,” the statement reads.

“To this end, AHS has provided standard information on the fentanyl issue to funeral home operators in response to their interest; however, it’s important to note that AHS has not made and is not making any recommendation to funeral home operators to get naloxone.  This would be up to the discretion of the operators, based on the information that AHS has provided.”

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READ MORE: Alberta makes fentanyl antidote naloxone available in pharmacies

Zentner does believe new industry regulations will take effect over time, but for now, he’s not taking any chances.

“The changes which are being inflicted on our industry are an absolute necessity, due to the fact that it’s dangerous, and it’s something that we want to make sure we’re looking out for,” he said.

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