Is Opioid Addiction the Most Important Workplace Safety and Health Problem?

opioidI’m going ask some questions in order to start a conversation here — about workplace drug abuse, workplace fatalities and OSHA —  a conversation that will probably go on for a long time.  If you have anything to say about this topic, let’s try to get a discussion going in the comment section.

In response to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released earlier this week finding that workplace fatalities  had increased by 7% form 2015 to 2016– from 4,836 workers killed in the workplace in 2015 to 5,190 killed in 2016, OSHA’s Acting Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt singled out only one problem in a press release — the problem of opioid addition.  (Along with the obligatory praise for how President Trump was allegedly handling the issue.)

Indeed, the BLS reported that drug and alcohol overdoses on the job had increased from 165 in 2015 to 217 in 2016, a 32-percent increase. And that overdose fatalities have increased by at least 25 percent annually since 2012.

Troubling issues. But the report also revealed that:

  • Asian workers incurred 160 fatal injuries, up from 114 in 2015, which was the highest percentage increase (40 percent).
  • Workplace homicides increased by 83 cases to 500 in 2016. This is the highest homicide figure since 2010.
  • Workers killed from falls, slips, or trips continued a general upward trend that began in 2011, increasing 6 percent to 849 in 2016 and 25 percent overall since 2011.
  • Trench Collapse fatalities went up 42% from 2015 to 2016. Trench collapse deaths have gone up 177% since 2014.
  • Older workers — 55 years and over — the highest number of workplace fatalities since BLS started collecting CFOI data in 1992, with 1,848 deaths

This list of bad news could easily be longer. There is lots for safety and health professionals to be concerned about.

Question: Why, with all of the serious problems highlighted in this report, was fatalities resulting from opioid abuse the only problem that Sweatt mentioned?  There are clearly other hazards that caused more deaths and had larger recent increases.

Question:  Why is there so much discussion of how drug abuse leads to workplace injuries, but almost no discussion of the extent to which workplace injury leads to drug abuse?  For example, a devastating article in the Washington Post this week about a couple fighting drug addiction included this paragraph:

Over the past generation, disability in America changed. As the number of people receiving federal disability benefits surged, before tapering off in 2015, the share with circulatory disorders such as heart disease, once the plurality, shrank significantly amid medical advances. Meanwhile, the percentage of workers awarded Social Security Disability Insurance for musculoskeletal disorders — disabilities frequently treated with opioids — began to rise sharply. By 2012, nearly half of the beneficiaries were using opioids, and more than one-fifth chronically, according to a paper published last year by researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of California at Los Angeles. (emphasis added)

No mention there (nor in any OSHA press releases) about how the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush passed legislation in 2001 repealing OSHA’s ergonomics standard.  Nor any mention that Trump’s nominee to head OSHA, Scott Mugno, was a big defender of that repeal.

Question: Why is there so much discussion about prevention of drug addiction resulting from pain management after an injury, rather than prevention of the injury in the first place by eliminating or controlling workplace hazards?

Question: Now that Sweatt has raised the issue, what can OSHA do about the problem, aside possibly from requiring employer first-aid kits to contain Narcan, a drug that can reverse narcotic overdoses?

Question: And what can health and safety directors and union reps do?

Question: Finally, am I overly suspicious or could this be a not-too-subtle attempt to blame the increase in workplace death on worker weakness? And could this be preparation for an OSHA proposal to repeal language prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers that was contained in a recently issued OSHA recordkeeping regulation?

Much of the opposition to this provision stemmed from employer fear that OSHA would outlaw all drug testing, even though the agency was clear that only drug testing used to discourage reporting of injuries would fall under the standard.

And if you’re looking for some interesting and upsetting reading, check out this New Yorker article about the family and their company who almost single-handedly created the opioid crisis in the United States. It should your outrage sensors fired up to go into the new year with plenty of energy to fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Use the comments below to respond to anything you agree or disagree with. And if you want to keep track of responses, click on the box that says “Notify me of follow-up comments by email.”

Fatalities

1 Comment

  1. I agree with you on the statistical analysis, but remember, of course the emphasis is on opioid and drug abuse since the taboo of drug use in the USA has always been a policy of “War on Drugs” and actually addressing the underlying problem.

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