Hospital leaders are clearing the air around Conemaugh Health System facilities.
Beginning Jan. 1, tobacco use will be prohibited for all employees, contracted workers and volunteers during their shifts.
“As the leading health-care organization for a pretty big region, we need to lead by example,” Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center President Steven Tucker said.
“Employees will no longer be able to smoke at any time. There will be no smoking breaks; and no smoking over lunch. It’s the entire day.”
The new policy has been a long time in the making, Tucker said.
Smoking has been prohibited on all Conemaugh property since November 2007. Leaders began discussing “the next step” after Geisinger Health System in Danville announced last year it would no longer hire smokers.
“It heightened awareness, community wide,” Tucker said.
“Employees started talking more about it. There were comments from patients and visitors in terms of what the system is doing.”
Leadership organized employee focus groups to discuss tobacco use issues.
“We got pretty strong feedback from employees that we should take the next step,” Tucker said.
Although leaders looked into the Geisinger policy, he said, a patient advisory committee and other hospital organizations settled on the smoke-free shift option. Patients are affected by smokers who come back from breaks smelling of tobacco, Tucker said.
Conemaugh is bolstering its smoking cessation programs in advance of the change, said Joe Shetler, employee wellness coordinator.
“Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death,” Shetler said. “It is one of the worst things a person can do to their body.”
Smoking help includes education, group support and nicotine replacement options, Shetler said.
“We have empathy for the smokers,” Tucker said. “We know it is difficult to quit. We are trying not to make it as much about a policy change as about improving health and wellness for our employees and our patients.”
Smoker Anna Christian says she will be checking out the cessation help. The medical assistant leaves the Memorial Medical Center campus for part of her lunch hour each shift to have a smoke.
She acknowledged the value of the new policy.
“It’s a good thing for me,” she said along an 8th Ward street. “I’d really like to try to quit.”
Two smokers on another street were not so upbeat.
“What about our rights?” one said.
“Smokers don’t have any anymore,” another answered, shrugging. “It is what it is.”
The smoke-free shift policy is part of Conemaugh’s new push to address community health needs.
The campaign was inspired in part by the United Way of Laurel Highlands Community Needs Assessment, Tucker said. The study showed tobacco use in this region ranks above the national average.
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