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Spike in fatal workplace overdoses puts focus on addiction prevention

Workplace overdoses

Employers must shift their mindsets from disciplining workers with substance abuse problems toward prevention and treatment to address an alarming increase in the rate of fatal overdoses in the workplace, safety experts say.

The latest government figures showing another double-digit rise in fatal overdoses at work may encourage employers to ramp up efforts to ensure their health plans, wellness and employee assistance programs are more effective in aiding addicted workers, they say.

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 increased by at least 25%, according to data released in December by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Employees are the at-risk population for drug overdoses,” said Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois. “(Employers) need to start recognizing that addiction is a chronic brain disorder and treat it as such. It’s not as much a disciplinary issue as an employee health and safety issue.”

“It’s a risk that employers are facing across the nation and it requires special attention,” said Rixio Medina, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals and a vice president at safety consultancy Insight Risk LLC, based in Houston.

Substance abuse may also be a contributing factor to workplace fatalities in other categories, experts say, such as transportation, which remained the most frequent fatal event in 2017 with 2,077, or 40.4%, of fatal incidents, according to the BLS.

“There could be a substance abuse issue that’s caused the accident, and we as a society struggle with that,” said Bill Spiers, Charlotte, North Carolina-based vice president, unit manager and risk control strategies practice leader for Lockton Cos. LLC.

Employers should train supervisors and employees to recognize signs of drug addiction, ensure their health plans and wellness programs cover substance abuse — preferably for free — and work with health care providers so that pain management for injured workers does not revolve around opioid prescriptions, experts say.

“As an employer, you have to have an employee assistance program with specific programs for addiction treatment and counseling,” said Don Martin, senior vice president for Marietta, Georgia-based workplace safety consultancy DEKRA North America Inc. “Addiction is a real disease and we should recognize it as a real disease.” 

Employers must step outside of their comfort zones to address this problem, lobbying policymakers for changes to reduce drug and alcohol dependency and working with social agencies within their communities where their workforces come 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.”

Legislative efforts, to date, have focused on the recovery aspect of the opioids epidemic, “but when you look at the root causes, one of them is pain management, and workplace injuries are part of that,” said Mark Ames, director, government relations for the American Industrial Hygiene Association in Falls Church, Virginia.

Complicating employers’ ability to tackle the substance abuse issue was confusion about their ability to conduct post-incident drug testing due to a regulatory change by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mr. Medina said. OSHA’s Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses regulation, otherwise known as the electronic record-keeping rule, did not ban drug testing of employees but prohibited employers from using drug testing or the threat of it as a form of adverse action against employees who report injuries or illnesses, according to the final rule, published in 2016.

“A lot of companies, to play it safe, just stopped” drug testing, he said. “That was another tool in the toolbox.”

But in October 2018, OSHA issued a memorandum clarifying that the rule does not prohibit employers from conducting post-incident drug testing. Due to a worker shortage, employers cannot simply fire employees with addiction problems, Mr. Medina said. The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 3.9% in December 2018 from a 49-year low of 3.7% in the previous month, according to BLS data.

“There are more jobs than people available to perform the jobs,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of eliminating people. If they have any problems that affect them, including substance abuse, we have to have systems in place that can help them recover and be effective workers and safe workers.” “Discipline is not the answer,” Mr. Martin said. Employers “can get ahead of this problem and they need to start thinking about this now rather than waiting for (fatal overdoses) to get up into the thousands.”

But a heightened focus on drug addiction hazards should not draw attention away from the more established safety risks that continue to constitute the vast majority of workplace fatalities, experts say.

“I think that’s a real legitimate concern,” Mr. Kolosh said. “There’s still vastly more employees dying year after year from falls to a lower level or because of roadway motor vehicle incidents. But it’s also important to recognize this emerging trend. If we don’t start recognizing it as an issue, unfortunately ... the number of drug overdose deaths could start comparing to other more traditional concerns that safety professionals have been grappling with.”







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