Last month, Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) began implementing a complete smoking ban in federal prisons. The ban applies to all prison correctional officers and staff, as well as prison inmates. In maximum security prisons, the complete smoking ban took effect on May 5, 2008. The ban was also applied to medium security and minimum security facilities as of May 20, 2008 and June 2, 2008, respectively.

The issue of protecting workers from occupational exposure to secondhand smoke gained heightened awareness in 2002 when Heather Crowe, a waitress who spent nearly 40 years of her life working in smoke-filled restaurants, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her case was highly publicized and before her death, Crowe explained, “my doctors told me I had a smoker’s tumour and, therefore, I’m dying. I never smoked a day in my life… The air was blue where I worked and I’m dying of lung cancer from second-hand smoke.”

In federal prisons, there have been a number of past work refusals initiated by corrections officers in relation to the hazard of second-hand smoke. One of the first work refusals occurred in 2000 when a corrections officer refused to be reassigned to a living unit as the exposure to second-hand smoke in the living unit constituted a danger. The investigating Canada Health and Safety Officer (CHSO) found, however, that there must be a reasonable expectation that the correctional officer would eventually develop a chronic illness or disease after being exposed to second-hand smoke during the single shift and the CHSO found that expectation to be unreasonable.

In October 2005, Howard Page, a corrections officer of 7 years, refused to work for health reasons related to second- hand smoke. Similar to the work environment Crown conveyed, Page explains, “in the winter . . . when the windows are closed, the smoke has nowhere to go and . . . you can sometimes see a bluish haze hanging just below the ceiling.” The investigating CHSO issued a direction to CSC, ordering them to protect any person exposed to second-hand smoke. CSC applied for a stay after conducting maintenance work on the ventilation system and issuing the January 2006 indoor no-smoking ban. On August 10, 2006, the Appeals officer determined that the likelihood that the near zero exposure to second hand smoke would cause injury to the health of employees is so remote that no danger exists. The Appeals Officer rescinded the direction issued by the CHSO.

Although the CSC won the August 2006 legal battle, work refusals related to second-hand smoke exposure continued. On November 8, 2006, a work refusal was initiated by five correctional officers at one facility claiming that employees continued to be exposed to second-hand smoke. The investigating CHSO directed CSC to take measure to correct the hazard or condition or alter the activity that constitute the danger or protect any person from the danger. On appeal of the decision, CSC was directed to make every reasonable effort to address the issue and protect the employees from being exposed to second-hand smoke inside the workplace.

The complete smoking ban, currently being implemented, expands CSC’s January 2006 policy prohibiting indoor smoking, to prohibiting all smoking on prison property, both indoors and outdoors. CSC spokesperson, Lynn Brunette, explains, “since the partial ban was not working, in order to ensure a safe, healthy, smoke-free environment, we decided to move forward on a total ban.”

The introduction of the complete smoking ban, however, is not without concern. Last year, Canada’s federal prison system handled nearly 20,000 inmates. Although the complete smoking ban will eliminate occupational secondhand smoke exposure, there are concerns that nicotine withdrawal will invoke escalated violence. Union of Canadian Correctional Officers spokesperson, Lyle Stewart states that, “contingency plans are in place to deal with any backlash from angry inmates.” Stewart explains the concern is, “about if there’s any organized attempt to lead a riot or revolt.”

With potential backlash yet to be a reality, Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada (PSC) applauded CSC’s decision to ban smoking in federal prisons. PSC’s Executive Director, Cynthia Callard, states, “prison guards and prison inmates deserve the same health protection as all Canadians. They should not be forced to assume the very real and very dangerous risks of breathing second-hand smoke as a condition of employment or a condition of their prison sentence.”