Massachusetts to explore potential link between opioid deaths and compReprints
A Massachusetts Department of Public Health official said the state plans to dig deeper into why construction workers tend to die more often from opioid overdoses than other workers in the state, and that it wants to see if there is a link between workers compensation and overdoses.
The state is “planning a larger study merging data from our workers compensation system with data from multiple merged health data sets so we can characterize the risk of nonfatal as well as fatal opioid overdose among injured workers and also access the extent to which work-related injuries serve as a gateway to opioid use,” Letitia Davis, Boston-based director of the Occupational Health Surveillance Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, wrote in an email Tuesday.
Plans for additional study comes one week after the department released a study finding that the opioid-related death rate for those employed in “construction and extraction occupations” was six times the average rate for all Massachusetts workers.
An examination of the death certificates of the 4,305 workers who died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2015 found that construction and extraction workers accounted for more than 24% of all opioid-related deaths among the working population during the study years. Construction and extraction workers had both a high rate, at 150.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, and a high number of opioid-related overdose deaths, at 1,096 over the study’s four-year term, according to the study released Aug. 8.
Researchers also found the rate of fatal opioid-related overdose was higher among workers employed in industries and occupations known to have high rates of work-related injuries and illnesses.
Working while in pain is also an issue when it comes to opioid use and physically demanding professions, Ms. Davis wrote, adding that construction work is often seasonal. “Pressures to work ‘when you can’ may contribute to working in pain,” she wrote.
“Workers who don’t have sick leave benefits or experience job insecurity may be more likely to work in pain,” Ms. Davis wrote.
Those in construction safety and risk management said the takeaway for employers is to pay better attention to workers, improve benefits and sick time offered to employees and have drug policies in place that include drug testing.
Yet the limited size of some construction firms is a hurdle when it comes to tackling drug use among workers, said Carl Heinlein, Pittsburgh-based senior safety consultant at the American Contractors Insurance Group and a director-at-large for the American Society of Safety Professionals.
“We have a lot of construction companies that are extremely small; they may not have sophisticated risk management programs or safety programs,” said Mr. Heinlein, adding that benefits are also an issue. “We are trying to do a better job in our industry looking at total worker health, (and) we still have a way to go with that.”
Employers in high-risk fields such as construction can train front-line supervisors to spot red flags for drug use — signs that go beyond the “red eyes and needle-track marks” common in drug users, said Rachael Cooper, Madison, Wisconsin-based senior program manager for substance use harm prevention safety at the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council.
One such red flag is a change in attitude or appearance, noticing that “this person is not doing what they used to do,” she said. “Then find that person help.”