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Safety experts sound alarm on addiction-related workplace deaths

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The drug addiction epidemic is increasingly being felt in U.S. workplaces, with fatal overdoses rising at a “shocking” and “alarming” rate, according to safety experts analyzing the latest government statistics on workplace deaths.

Fifty-five more employees died from fatal overdoses in the workplace in 2017 than 2016, offsetting the 33 fewer workplace deaths seen overall last year, according to the BLS data released on Dec. 18.

A total of 5,147 fatal work injuries were recorded in the U.S. in 2017, down only 0.8% from the 5,190 fatal injuries reported in 2016, marking the second consecutive year that workplace deaths surpassed the 5,000 incident mark, according to the BLS.

“We have not made a significant improvement,” said Rixio Medina, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals and a vice president at safety consultancy Insight Risk LLC based in Houston. “Too many workers are dying as a result of the injuries that they suffer at work.”

The fatal injury rate decreased to 3.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2017 from 3.6 in 2016 — a figure that accounts for key factors such as the changing number of employee hours each year, said Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois.

“In real terms, the workplace is slightly safer than it was before, so that’s the good news,” he said.

But unintentional overdoses due to nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol while at work increased 25.3% to 272 deaths in 2017, marking the fifth consecutive year in which unintentional workplace overdose deaths have increased by at least 25%, according to the BLS fatality data.

Employers must step outside of their comfort zones to address this problem, said Don Martin, senior vice president for Marietta, Georgia-based workplace safety consultancy DEKRA North America Inc. For example, employers should implement internal initiatives to tackle the issue, such as employee assistance programs that can help addicted workers, but must go beyond that to lobby policymakers for changes to help reduce drug and alcohol dependency and work with social agencies within their communities where their workforces comes from, he said.

“This is where it gets touchy or difficult for employers to do something because this requires them to get involved,” Mr. Martin said. “This is a big political and social problem. This is a reflection of what’s happening in society, and it finds its way into the workplaces. Employers have to get more involved politically and socially.”

Employers must also recognize that discipline is not the solution to dealing with addicted workers and should train supervisors and employees to recognize signs of drug addiction, ensure their health plans cover substance abuse, and work with health care providers so that pain management does not revolve around opioid prescriptions, experts say.

Employers “need to start recognizing that addiction is a chronic brain disorder and treat it as such,” Mr. Kolosh said. “It’s not as much a disciplinary issue as an employee health and safety issue.”

But a heightened focus on workplace safety risks related to drug addiction should not draw attention away from the more traditional or well-known safety risks that continue to constitute the vast majority of workplace fatalities, experts say.

For example, transportation incidents remained the most frequent fatal event in 2017 with 2,077, or 40.4%, of fatal incidents, according to the BLS.

“The transportation issue is not surprising,” said Bill Spiers, Charlotte, North Carolina-based vice president, unit manager and risk control strategies practice leader for Lockton Cos. LLC. “On the insurance side, we are seeing a significant concern and jump in auto pricing around auto liability, auto physical damage. Most if not all of that is driven by losses.”

It's not just the use of cellphones to call and text, but other factors such as the use of traffic and mapping applications that contribute to distracted driving, Mr. Spiers said. Employers should have internal policies prohibiting the use of phones, even with hands-free devices, with some employers screening drivers who exhibit unsafe behavior such as texting or emailing while driving, he said.

“Distracted driving is an issue for all industries,” he said. “We’re going to have to face that as risk professionals.”

If they are not doing so already, employers should be taking steps such as managing driving routes to avoid high-traffic areas during peak times and managing driver fatigue risk, Mr. Martin said. They should also manage such risk through their procurement process by purchasing vehicles with the latest technology to prevent accidents, he said.

“There are practices they should be putting in place that go way beyond what the law requires,” he said.

Meanwhile, fatal falls were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the BLS census of fatal occupational injuries, accounting for 17.2% of employee deaths. Of 713 fatal fall deaths, 25% occurred at heights of 10 feet or less — a concerning statistic for safety professionals.

“When you are above ground level, any fall can be fatal, so that’s why it’s important to take falls seriously and have a fall protection system,” Mr. Medina said. “You have to take special precautions even though you may not be required by regulation to wear fall protection devices. That’s the attitude that employers need to have — that even small falls can cause traumatic injury.”

Fatal occupational injuries involving confined spaces rose 15.2% to 166 in 2017.

“This is one that really bugs me,” Mr. Martin said. “We probably know more about how to protect people in confined spaces than any other workplace hazard, and it is just astounding to me that people still get killed going into confined spaces. That number should be zero.”

But there were some positive trends that emerged from the BLS data, including crane-related workplace fatalities falling to their lowest level ever recorded in the census at 33 deaths, experts say.

Fatal falls resulting from contact with objects and equipment incidents were also down 8.7% to 695 fatal incidents last year, with caught in running equipment or machinery deaths down 26.2% to 76 deaths, according to the BLS data.

“That’s a reoccurring challenge for safety professionals to keep that from happening, so to see that amount of reduction — down 26% — is really encouraging to me,” Mr. Spiers said.