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Erin Hawkins is director of community health at the Petaluma Health Care District, which offers the American Heart Association-affiliated HeartSafe Business initiative serving the entire North Bay. For information on its AED sales, installation and maintenance program coupled with CPR certification and trainings, visit www.phcd.org/heartsafecommunity.php or call 707-766-9226.

Cardiovascular disease — also known as heart disease — is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Half of all heart disease deaths are caused by a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), which can happen anytime, anywhere, at any age.

Many victims have no prior history of heart disease and are stricken without warning. SCA is the No. 1 cause of death in the workplace, killing 10,000 American workers at their place of employment every year.

Trends here in the North Bay don’t deviate from these observed nationally. For every 10 Sonoma County residents, three have heart disease — nearly 149,000 people.

Poor heart health is expensive. In Sonoma County, health care costs related to heart disease total $570 million every year. When heart disease leads to a SCA, it can lead to a lifetime of debilitation and cost — for individuals, for families and for businesses.

February is American Heart Month. Many businesses join the movement by supporting National Wear Red Day, encouraging employees to wear red in effort to raise awareness that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women. These are important educational campaigns, but businesses can do even more to protect the hearts of their most important assets — their employees.

What if you knew there was a simple, affordable tool for the workforce that could help reduce the risk of death and disability from SCA? There is such a tool: the automated external defibrillator (AED).

What is an AED and why should my business have one?

An AED is a portable medical device designed to analyze the heart rhythm and deliver an electric shock to victims of SCA to restore the heart rhythm to normal.

Having an AED onsite is an easy way to drastically improve the safety of your workforce in the event of a cardiac emergency.

AEDs are designed to be used by non-medical personnel and are an integral part of any business’ emergency response plan. AEDs save precious treatment time, and can improve survival rates because they can be used before emergency medical services arrive. It is compact, lightweight, portable, battery operated, safe and easy to use.

Does an AED replace the need for CPR?

AEDs are a great first step but the combined action with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) increases survival rates. CPR training should also be considered as part of the emergency plan, and there are programs that train in both.

AEDs rely on batteries and electrical hardware. How do I make sure these are always rescue ready?

Making sure your AED is accessible, functioning and fully charged — or “rescue ready” — is critical. AEDs that are locked away in closets or back offices unbeknownst to staff are of little use during an emergency. Most AED batteries and electrical pads expire in two to four years, and will need to be replaced.

Fortunately, there are local low-cost programs out there to ensure your AED is in tip-top shape.

For example, our HeartSafe Community program will work with businesses to ensure their AEDs are located in the most logical and appropriate location for an emergency, will develop a Cardiac Emergency Response Plan and Team for businesses to use internally to identify staff roles and responsibilities, and can establish a protocol for conducting quick monthly AED checks and ordering new pads and batteries when needed.

Erin Hawkins is director of community health at the Petaluma Health Care District, which offers the American Heart Association-affiliated HeartSafe Business initiative serving the entire North Bay. For information on its AED sales, installation and maintenance program coupled with CPR certification and trainings, visit www.phcd.org/heartsafecommunity.php or call 707-766-9226.

HeartSafe Community also offers CPR certification and training for staff and can check that your AED is meeting current federal and state legislation.

Are there legal risks to using an AED?

Many businesses are concerned about liability in having or deploying an AED.

This is a common question, and there is a simple answer. California’s Good Samaritan Law and California Senate Bill 658 protect businesses from liability in using CPR or deploying an AED in attempt to save someone’s life. The Good Samaritan Law also applies if you have an AED and it isn’t used during an emergency.

How else will an AED help my business?

Investing in an AED and CPR is a testament to your commitment to supporting and promoting health and safety at your workplace.

Not only are you helping keep your employees safe, CPR and AED training can help foster and support a culture of health in the workplace. Many businesses use these programs as touchstones for their own company wellness programs.

The training staff receive — both in CPR and using an AED — extends beyond the walls of the business. Employees are empowered with skills that can save a life out in their communities.

And, this important tool isn’t limited just to English-speaking staff.

In fact, HeartSafe Community is the only local distributor of dual language (Spanish-English) AEDs and has a Spanish-speaking CPR instructor. During an emergency, language shouldn’t be an obstacle to being able to help.

We are happy and proud to offer courses and equipment that reflects the diversity of our workforce.

There are no negatives to having a maintained AED in the workplace. They save lives, are easy to use, and reflect a commitment to employee safety, health and wellness. Start a conversation and turn it into action in honor of American Heart Month.