Mo. fire district bans smoking in uniform

Editor's Note: What do you think of the new policies unveiled in west St. Louis County? Would you want them introduced at your department or do they go a step too far? Be sure to have your say in the comments section at the end of the article.

By Blythe Bernhard
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Fire officials in west St. Louis County want to make sure all that's smoking are the fires.

In what's thought to be the most aggressive anti-smoking policy among fire departments in the state, firefighters and other employees of the West County EMS and Fire Protection District won't be allowed to smoke on the job or in uniform starting in January.

Also, all employees hired after Jan. 1 must agree not to smoke or chew tobacco while on- or off-duty.

"The spirit of the policy is not to get anybody in trouble," district spokeswoman Kim Bacon said. "Everybody knows it's in their best interest."

About seven of 63 of the district's employees use tobacco regularly, fire officials said. Smokers will be offered counseling and other programs to help them quit.

"We felt we owed it to our taxpayers to be in the best shape we possibly could," said Rich Minda, West County fire captain and a vice president of the local firefighters' union. "We just don't feel that it's proper to be doing something so bad for yourself when you're viewed as a role model."

Minda said he was surprised by the positive reaction among firefighters. The union's vote to approve the policy was unanimous.

"It's giving the guys a reason to quit," he said. "They're setting their deadlines and they're quitting now."

No testing
Violations of the policy will be investigated, fire officials said. but no plans are in place for random or regular testing. The district's service area includes Manchester, Town and Country, Winchester, Twin Oaks and parts of Ballwin, Valley Park and Des Peres.

Before drafting the anti-tobacco policy, district officials consulted a lawyer to review state and federal workplace discrimination laws.

While smoking already is banned in most workplaces, about 6,000 companies nationwide refuse to even hire smokers, according to the National Workrights Institute, a New Jersey nonprofit.

Nationwide there have been few challenges to smoking bans on public safety employees.

In the 1980s, an Oklahoma City firefighter sued the city after being fired for smoking during a lunch break. The city had a policy banning smoking for fire trainees on- or off-duty.

Greg Grusendorf lost his case on appeal when the court ruled that anti-smoking policies are reasonable to protect the health and conditioning of firefighters.

Civil rights groups say while lifestyle choices are none of the boss' business, firefighters have a harder time making that argument because physical requirements are generally acceptable for the high-risk jobs.

And compared to other employers, fire departments can expect higher health care costs because firefighters breathe in toxins whether they smoke or not, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute.

"It's not always easy to determine why someone's lungs were damaged," Maltby said. "Firefighters who develop pulmonary diseases automatically collect workers' compensation."

Companies spend about $3,400 a year in medical expenses and lost productivity for every worker who smokes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's unknown how many fire departments nationwide have enacted similar anti-tobacco policies. But many states and cities have enacted smoking bans in and out of work for employees including firefighters.

Still, the West County policy does not reflect any national trends, said Curt Varone, a director for the National Fire Protection Association.

The association does not set any standards for fire departments to prohibit smoking, but does ask them to offer smoking cessation programs for employees, Varone said.

"Certainly from a risk perspective we would recommend that firefighters don't smoke."

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