Judge denies fire union request to halt blood and bodily fluid cleanup

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit Fire Fighter Association President Michael Nevin, stands with homeowner Sandra Bailey whose home was severely damaged from an electrical fire last year.

Detroit — A judge on Wednesday turned down a request from the city's fire union to halt a policy that directs firefighters to clean up blood and bodily fluids at accident and medical scenes.

The Detroit Fire Fighter Association filed suit last month asking for an injunction until an unfair labor practices complaint over the newly inked rules could be resolved. 

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Hathaway made the ruling after a full day of testimony, directing that the dispute be handled by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. A hearing is set for next week, said fire union President Mike Nevin.

"Our members and the public were done a great disservice today," Nevin said after the hearing. "Basically, (the judge) left us in limbo. We have no idea what doing out here."

The union, in its court filing, argued that the policy could expose crews to HIV, hepatitis or other blood-borne pathogens and was approved by top management, without bargaining or consideration by the labor-managed Health and Safety Committee.

But fire administration has countered that while the policy wasn't in writing before, it's not new. 

Detroit fire administration issued the written "Bodily Fluid Aftermath Cleanup" policy in March that says fire personnel involved with medical response must ensure cleanup of blood and other bodily fluids at any and all accident scenes, medical first responder runs, and other incidents, as requested by police. 

The policy also requires that blood and bodily fluids be diluted and flushed down sewer drains. 

Chief of Department Robert Distelrath told The News last month that the policy has been the standard practice. It just hadn't been formalized in writing.

On Wednesday, Distelrath reiterated that position and said the administration is grateful for Hathaway's ruling. 

"We obviously think it's the correct decision," said Distelrath, who testified during Wednesday's hearing. "We're going to continue to operate in a safe manner to protect the citizens and the firefighters and continue about our business."

The written procedure, Distelrath has said, was prompted by a request for clarification from the field.

The administration has noted that the department is medically licensed and its members are authorized and have protective gear to perform a "washdown" to remove bodily fluids from the public view on public streets and thoroughfares. 

But Nevin argues members have not had hands-on training and this is another layer of cleanup that the department would need a specialized division to handle. 

"This work is not germane to firefighters. It's not what firefighters do," he said. "If they want us to do different kind of work or add something to our workload, let’s do it right. Train them. Let’s do it in a professional, humane manner."

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in an emailed statement that the city was glad the judge agreed there was "no basis" to halt "the long-standing practice" and that the health and safety of city firefighters "is a priority for us."