Safety and OSHA News

Is number of deaths from workplace injury higher than reported due to opioid overdose?

A new study links workplace injuries to the opioid epidemic. 

The rate of fatal opioid-related overdose was higher among workers in industries with high injury rates, according to research by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Construction workers had a high rate of opioid-related overdose death (150.6 per 100,000 workers) compared to the average for all Massachusetts workers (25.1). The rate for construction workers is six times the average rate.

Employees in fishing occupations also had a high rate, at five times the state average (143.9).

Other occupations with high rates of fatal opioid-related deaths include:

  • material moving (59.1)
  • installation, maintenance and repair (54.0)
  • transportation (42.6)
  • production (42.1)
  • food prep and serving (39.5)
  • building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (38.3), and
  • healthcare support (31.8).

The Massachusetts study results are consistent with previous research that showed common use of prescribed opioids for pain management following work-related injury.

The opioid-related death rate was also higher among workers in occupations with less paid sick leave and lower job security.

“There is a lot of pressure to work in pain,” Jodi Sugarman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health told The Boston Globe.

“Ensuring that jobs are safe, that the risk of injury is low, and that workers have the time for rehabilitation and are not self-medicating to keep working are all key to decreasing opioid overdose deaths among workers, ” said Dr. Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner.

Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier, medical director for addictions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, told the Globe he found the research “unsurprising” because drugs are commonly available on job sites. “It’s incredibly common for people to report that other people in their workplace have pills,” he said. People get hurt on the job, Schuman-Olivier says, and are “getting offered stuff on the job.”

Another problem: Work schedules make it difficult for injured employees to receive proper treatment, according to Schuman-Olivier.

Culture is also a factor in industries that value toughness and look down upon seeking help.

The study suggests several ways to prevent opioid-related overdose deaths:

  • Address workplace hazards that cause injuries for which opioids are prescribed
  • Provide appropriate pain management following an injury
  • Require safer opioid prescribing
  • Provide access to treatment for opioid use disorders, and
  • Educate workers about overdose prevention.

Workplace deaths in the U.S. rose in 2014, 2015 and 2016 (the most recent year statistics are available). In 2016, there were 5,190 recorded workplace deaths and 4.5 million workplace injuries.

However, this research suggests 5,190 fatalities may be an under-count due to post-injury opioid overdoses. What may, at first, seem like a workplace injury with “manageable pain” could lead to the employee’s death due to an opioid overdose.

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