The public library system in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley prohibits employees from administering first aid to patrons, including people suffering drug overdoses, even if they are asked to do so by a 911 dispatcher.
Instead, a Fraser Valley Regional Library policy, obtained by The Globe and Mail, directs staff members not to approach patrons in medical distress unless accompanied by a co-worker, and to not touch them to intervene under any circumstances.
Several employees of the library contacted The Globe to raise concerns about the policy after the paper reported on the Vancouver Public Library’s decision to prohibit employees from administering naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, even though some had sought out training on their own. The Vancouver Public Library is informing staff this week that those with naloxone training and who feel comfortable intervening in the event of an overdose are now permitted to do so.
The Fraser Valley Regional Library employees who contacted The Globe did not want to be identified because they feared disciplinary action, but shared a copy of the policy.
“Keep your distance from the customer to keep yourself safe,” it reads. “Look at your surroundings and identify an escape route for yourself and the other staff member should the customer get startled and try to move.”
The policy then advises the staff member to call out to the victim and dial 911 should the patron remain unresponsive, unconscious, in distress or otherwise in need of medical attention.
“911 may ask you if you feel comfortable performing basic first aid, such as adjusting the customer’s position or touching the customer,” the policy continues. “Do not! Your safety may be compromised as a result. Let the 911 operator know that you are at work, that this is a customer, that you do not know the reason for the customer’s behaviour and that you do not feel comfortable or safe performing first aid on the customer.”
All employees were required sign off on the policy, acknowledging that non-compliance could result in disciplinary action, including termination.
Jesse Wegenast, a pastor with The 5 and 2 Ministries, a street church in the Fraser Valley community of Abbotsford, said he was shocked to hear of the policy, given the local library’s many initiatives to help the homeless, such as distributing water and co-ordinating shelter during extreme weather.
“A lot of people who are marginalized and who use drugs, and are at risk of overdose, use the library often as a place to stay warm, as a place to reconnect with friends and family, to use the computers, to sit somewhere and read a book,” said Mr. Wegenast, who is also a harm-reduction co-ordinator.
“Libraries have a reputation for being real democratic spaces that welcome all. This sounds like it ultimately puts everyone at greater risk to deal with tragedy that unfolds in front of them, and that’s very sad.”
The library workers who approached The Globe spoke of increasing overdose incidents, including a fatality; insufficient support for employees who have experienced trauma; and anxiety from the idea they could have to choose between their jobs and trying to save a life.
Neither the Fraser Valley Regional Library’s chief executive Scott Hargrove nor the library’s communications department responded to e-mails and voice messages seeking comment. The union that represents its workers declined comment.
Ryan Watkins, a Toronto-based employment lawyer with Whitten & Lublin, said an employer has a duty to protect its work force and would understandably want to err on the side of caution.
“As an employer, you don’t want to be in a situation where your workers are going to assist somebody and, because of some type of interaction, the worker becomes harmed,” he said. “Coupled with that, you don’t want a situation where the worker, although [they] may have received some training, you don’t want to see them harming the person.
“With that being said, I think it’s a little short-sighted because that type of policy is punishing the Good Samaritan who wants to help in an emergency.”
B.C.’s Good Samaritan Act ensures that a person is not liable for damages for injury or death caused by rendering emergency medical services or aid, unless that person was grossly negligent. An employer, however, is responsible for the safety of its employees.
Mr. Watkins said the Fraser Valley Regional Library may be going too far by directing employees to tell 911 operators they are not comfortable performing first aid.
“It’s one thing to put out a policy stating that you should not engage with somebody that is unwell, or in a bad spot,” he said, “but it’s another thing to say to your work force, ‘Lie,’ because maybe that employee does feel comfortable and does want to help.”
The library workers describe the increase in overdose incidents at several Fraser Valley branches over the past few years as significant. Since Jan. 1, 2017, the Langley branch recorded 12 suspected overdose calls, the Chilliwack branch six and the Mission branch five, according to data from BC Emergency Health Services.
The library workers spoke of an overdose incident last June in which the patron died after being taken off life support several days later. The BC Coroners Service confirmed a man in his 30s died at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on June 7 following an incident at Mission Library, although the official cause of death has not yet been released as the coroner’s investigation is continuing.