Smokers Face Job Risk

November 22, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Companies should not fear losing workers if they choose to become smoke-free, said David Smith, president and CEO of The Employers’ Association.

As Saint Mary’s Health Care, Metro Heath and Spectrum Health hospital campuses move to instituting policies as of Jan. 1 that keep tobacco odor and smoke off the grounds, Smith said the benefits outweigh the risks of losing employees.

“I think this would be very difficult to do if we were a state of really low unemployment,” he said. “In our state of high unemployment, it’s an easier time to enact it.”

Smith said instituting a non-smoking policy with tools to help employees quit smoking makes sense for businesses, which should ask “what is the best sane, logical business decision, and then support people making the transition.”

“If they can’t make the transition, they probably should find other places to work,” he said. “You’re not going to change what’s good for the business just because people can’t make the transition.”

The policy is an effort for all the hospitals to keep the odor of tobacco off of the campuses, as it may cause complications for patients, as well as unpleasantness for visitors and staff who do not smoke. The policy also reduces time lost to smoke breaks and, when employees quit smoking, it might reduce the company’s health care costs.

“Everyone should have the right to a smoke-free environment,” said Micki Benz, vice president of community development for Saint Mary’s Health Care.

At Saint Mary’s, Benz said 86 percent of employees do not smoke, and since the majority of the 14 percent who do smoke are looking for help to quit, she does not anticipate a problem in losing personnel because of the policy.

Bill Rietscha, vice president of facilities for Spectrum Health, said he also has little concern of losing employees due to the policy, as only 17 percent of Spectrum employees smoke.

“Our hope would be that this is kind of pushing people over the edge of taking that next step,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to help these people kick their nicotine addiction, at our cost.”

While Saint Mary’s Health Care and Spectrum Health have made it mandatory to not smell of tobacco when arriving for a shift, Metro Health has instead called the effort a campaign that is aimed at stopping smoking from taking place during the work day.

“For us it is a campaign, and the benefits will hopefully encourage the minority of folks who continue to smoke during their workday to abstain,” said Rachael Hood, Metro Health corporate community advocate.

Benz said employees must arrive for their shifts at Saint Mary’s not smelling of tobacco, and they must even be aware of it if they are going somewhere that is smoke-filled for a meal or during a break.

“If you come to work smelling of smoke, you may be sent home to change,” she said.

Hood said though there will be repercussions, Metro is not prepared to send employees home if they smell of smoke.

“We’re a smaller organization, and as a result of that, it’s more difficult for us to make those quick changes,” Hood said. “Every person that is on the floor on a given day is kind of mission critical.”

Rietscha said he has heard some employees speak of their right to smoke, but he dismisses the issue.

“We have to keep in mind what a right is,” he said. “Smoking is not a protected behavior. … This is not an issue of personal rights; that’s a misunderstanding of the concept of freedom. Freedom has a natural and very important other aspect called responsibility, and that’s what we’re here to deal with. It’s not responsible to bring in the odor of smoke to the patient you’re responsible for.”

All three organizations are offering help to their employees who wish to quit smoking, including cessation classes, counseling and other methods.

Officials agreed that the cooperation between the organizations would lend strength to the mission.

“I think what this does, No. 1, is this sends a strong message to the community that the health care providers are united behind this mission,” Rietscha said.    

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