Jail guards threaten to sue Ottawa over second-hand smoke

Canada’s federal correctional officers are seeking leave from Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn to launch a lawsuit against their employer, Correctional Service (CSC) Canada, over its refusal to ensure a smoke-free workplace

Should the lawsuit proceed, the 6,000 members of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN) would be the first federal employees to sue a government department under s. 149 of the Canada Labour Code.

“We have worked with CSC for years on ways to ensure that the health of our members is not endangered by second-hand smoke,” said UCCO-SACC-CSN national president Sylvain Martel. “We have won judgments from federal health and safety officers ordering CSC to stop smoking by inmates in Canadian penitentiaries. And yet, correctional officers continue to inhale smoke on every shift, every day, in almost every institution across Canada. We can no longer tolerate this, especially considering the threat to our lives we already face in our jobs.”

The request is specifically based on the daily exposure to second-hand smoke by correctional officers at Millhaven Institution, near Kingston, Ont. After investigation by a health and safety officer, CSC was ordered “take measures to correct the hazard or condition or alter the activity that constitutes the danger or protect any person from the danger no later than Dec. 9, 2006,” the union said.

CSC management at Millhaven Institution have suggested that correctional officers wear respirators to protect themselves, the union said. But the only device effective against tobacco smoke is the self-contained breathing apparatus used by firefighters.

The union is proposing what it calls a “much simpler” solution that would safeguard the health of both correctional officers and inmates and comply with the law of several provinces. It wants a complete ban on tobacco products within the walls of all federal penitentiaries, as is already the policy in several provincial prison systems.

While CSC has formally banned smoking inside penitentiary buildings, inmates are allowed to keep tobacco in their cells, where they continue to smoke in defiance of the rules, the union said.

“Enough is enough,” said Martel. “We are among the last workers in Canada who cannot avoid breathing second-hand smoke on the job. The federal government must stop treating us as second-class citizens.”

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