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Spit isn’t just a movie star meme, it’s an occupational hazard

Reminders for public safety personnel on how to respond to a spitter with time, distance and shielding


Intentional spitting is one of the most common acts of violence directed toward public safety personnel.


Far too many headlines, memes and late-night jokes have been written in the last few days about the possibility that a celebrity spit on another celebrity during a movie premiere.

Who spit on who?

Honestly, I don’t care. I am much more concerned about the frequency with which EMTs, paramedics, correctional officers, firefighters and police officers get spat at and spit on by inmates, patients, suspects and bystanders. Next to verbal abuse, intentional spitting is one of the most common acts of violence directed toward public safety personnel.

Being spit at is not a trivial matter and represents a significant risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens and other potentially infectious materials. Here are a few reminders on how to respond to a spitter:

Keep your cool. Being spit at isn’t much different from being swung at, kicked or punched. Don’t retaliate. Instead, protect yourself from further harm and regain control of the situation.

Keep your distance. Ideally, if conditions and events allow, attempt to move out of range of the spitter. Realistically, it is difficult to move away from someone you are attempting to treat or restrain. Perhaps you can change the angle to make it more difficult for the spitter to target you.

Decontaminate. As soon as practical, wash off any of the spit that landed on your skin or uniform.

Create a barrier. Use the tools within your training and authorization to block further spitting. This may include application of a dust mask or spit hood. Once a mask or hood is applied, make sure to continually monitor the person’s breathing and maintenance of an open airway. Also, use eye protection to minimize the risk of spit getting in your eyes.

Document the incident. After using time, distance and shielding to reduce the risk of exposure, document and report what happened in the patient care report or other records management system. Make sure to fill out any exposure incident specific reports.

Seek charges. Don’t brush off the attack on your health and safety. Follow your department procedures to report the incident to your supervisor. For fire and EMS personnel, report the incident with the expectation that charges will be filled and pursued.

Report to infection control officer. Follow your local procedures to report a potential exposure to bloodborne pathogens and other potentially infectious materials. Make sure to comply with the infection control officer’s post-exposure instructions.

What are your reminders to minimize the risk of being spit at by patients, inmates, suspects or bystanders?

[Read next: Don’t let a spitter conquer you]

(And if you’re wondering, here’s the video that launched a thousand spit memes and hot takes this week.)

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.