In a new report, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health finds that construction workers made up nearly one quarter of workers in the state who died from opioid-related overdoses between 2011 and 2015. Workers in the farming, fishing, and forestry occupation (mostly fishing) had a similarly high rate of overdose deaths compared to the general population, while warehouse, transportation, maintenance, food service, and health care support workers also died from opioid overdoses at above-average rates.
The study, funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found a noteworthy gender gap in the occupational profiles of overdose victims. Most of the construction workers counted in the study were male, and men in the construction, agricultural, and material moving occupations experienced opioid-related deaths at a higher than average rate for male workers in Massachusetts. Among women, however, the highest rates were among healthcare support and food preparation/service workers.
A common thread among the occupations with high rates of overdose deaths is a greater propensity for workplace injuries in these industries, the report notes:
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. This finding is consistent with previous research documenting common use of prescribed opioids for management of acute and chronic pain following work-related injury. The rate was also higher among workers in occupations with lower availability of paid sick leave and lower job security. More in-depth research is needed to characterize the potential contribution of these factors to opioid misuse and overdose.
Experts and advocates for occupational safety in Massachusetts tell the Boston Globe they’re not surprised by these findings:
The report cites other research showing that injured workers are commonly prescribed opioid painkillers, which can lead to addiction. But it’s not clear to what extent they also rely on illicit drugs. Jodi Sugarman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group for workers’ health, said that many workers face delays in the worker’s compensation system and take painkillers while waiting for care.
“There is a lot of pressure to work in pain,” Sugarman-Brozan said. …
“We need to pay more attention to preventing those injuries so that workers are not working in pain,” said Leslie I. Boden, professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. Boden said his research has shown that injured workers die more frequently from drugs and suicide.
The epidemic of opioid addiction in the US has had a major impact on the labor market, contributing to the decline in workforce participation among prime-age men and leaving employers in safety-sensitive occupations like construction and manufacturing with shortages of qualified workers who can pass a drug test and be trusted to safely operate dangerous equipment. Construction and related industries are already looking at a shortage of up to half a million workers by 2026. The Massachusetts study shows the other side of this coin, revealing how injuries on the job can start employees down a path toward addiction that can take away their livelihoods or even their lives.
Opioid overdoses are also becoming a greater concern for employers: The number of Americans overdosing while at work has been increasing rapidly, though it remains small in absolute terms. The increasing availability of high-potency synthetic opioids like fentanyl on the black market has put opioid addicts at greater risk of accidentally ingesting more of these drugs than their bodies can handle. The growing danger of overdose prompted the US Surgeon General earlier this year to recommend that employers stock naloxone, an opioid receptor antagonist used to treat overdoses of heroin and other opiates, in their workplace first aid kits and train designated employees to administer it if necessary.