Risk to prison nurses from Spice fumes prompts safety review

Safety guidance for nurses entering prison cells containing fumes from the drug Spice to be reviewed

Picture: Alamy

The Prison Service has agreed to review safety guidance for healthcare professionals entering cells containing fumes from the drug Spice.

The move follows lobbying by the RCN in response to members’ reports about the effects of such exposure, which can last for hours and leave staff incapable of administering medications or driving home after shifts.

Nurses and healthcare assistants are often first on the scene when inmates need emergency care, and under current guidance are expected to enter cells before the smoke has cleared.

Concerns raised by nurses

Following a meeting with the RCN, HM Prison and Probation Service chief executive Michael Spurr has agreed to work with the college to update the guidance.

The update will include guidance on responding to emergencies, particularly out of hours, as well as improved reporting guidelines in English prisons.

RCN professional lead for prison nursing Ann Norman said: ‘The dangers posed by Spice, both to prison healthcare staff and the patients they care for, cannot be overstated – these drugs kill.

‘Nurses’ safety is on the line’

‘Nursing staff have passed out or been left unable to drive after inhaling fumes in smoke-filled cells. This is unacceptable. This is the first step on the road to improving conditions for dedicated nurses and healthcare assistants who are putting their safety on the line in the course of their duties.’

Measures to improve staff safety will also be drawn up in a new best practice paper, with input from the RCN, the Prison Service, prison officers and other interested groups. Local health and safety procedures will also be reviewed at prisons around the UK.

Other actions include:

  • The Prison Service will review the process for clearance procedures to try to speed up the recruitment of prison healthcare staff as part of measures to address a shortage of clinicians.
  • Healthcare staff will have more involvement in a Prison Service drugs task force that was set up to tackle the wider issues of supply and addiction in prisons.
  • Nurses and healthcare assistants will lead interventions with prisoners and use a variety of therapies to help them recover from addiction.

We’re looking out for our registration, not our health

Speaking anonymously, one prison nurse said: ‘There was a day when three people on my team couldn’t give medication – it wouldn’t have been safe because of the effects of Spice.

‘Not only is our health being put at risk, but we can’t do our jobs properly and other people are missing out on care.

‘At the time, your overwhelming concern is for the patient. What would happen if someone died because I refused to go in? It’s a horrible situation to be in. The reality is that we’re looking out for our registration, not our health.

‘A normal heartbeat is 60 to 90 beats per minute but after smoking Spice we’ve seen people with heartbeats of 140 to 180 beats per minute. A lot of the prisoners here don’t have the physical reserves to sustain that rate, so there is a risk they could die, which is frightening.’

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