Workplace Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise, in Grim Reminder of Opioid Crisis

Workplace Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise, in Grim Reminder of Opioid Crisis

Drug use among US employees has been increasing in recent years, with marijuana accounting for about half of the American workforce’s illegal drug habits. With a tight talent market, greater mainstream acceptance, and state-level legalization of marijuana, some employers have begun relaxing their drug testing policies, abandoning the zero-tolerance approach in favor of case-by-case judgments. The biggest substance abuse problems in the US, however, are not illegal drugs but rather alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers. Opioid addiction, as well as the underlying physical health issues that lead to these drugs being prescribed, has been persuasively identified as a significant driver of the decline in American workforce participation rates, particularly among men in what ought to be their prime working years.

Even more disconcerting is that the number of US employees dying from drug- or alcohol-related causes while at work has also risen sharply in recent years. While in absolute terms, those numbers remain very small, the rapid rate of increase is cause for concern, Gillian B. White warned at the Atlantic last month:

Last year alone, the number of workers who died at work because of drug- or alcohol-abuse-related incidents increased by more than 30 percent, to more than 200. While that number may seem small, it’s evidence of how rapidly the problem is growing—less than five years ago, fewer than 70 people died from overdoses at work. Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …

The increasing number of on-the-job deaths due to addiction is evidence of [the crisis’s impact on the workforce]. While the opioid crisis is often cast as a problem that predominantly plagues the jobless, some studies show that around two-thirds of those who report abusing painkillers are still employed. On top of the devastating aftermath of injuries and deaths, this can also lead to a lot of workers not performing to their potential.

According to a survey from the National Safety Council, an advocacy and consulting group that studies safety practices, around 70 percent of employers have seen some impact of prescription drug use on their workers, from missed shifts and impaired work. And yet fewer than 20 percent of employers said that they felt prepared to deal with issues related to addiction, such as knowing how to broach the topic with workers or get them help.

The heavy toll the opioid epidemic is taking on the workforce means that employers have a role to play in addressing it. Fortunately, there are a number of steps employers can take to identify and help employees who suffer from addiction or are at risk of falling victim to it.