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Drugs in the Workplace

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

Today the Wall Street Journal, namely Harriet Torry, reported “the number of U.S. deaths at work from unintentional drug and alcohol overdoses jumped more than 30% in 2016, according to new government data, showing that the nation’s struggle with a deadly opioid epidemic is migrating to the workplace.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries said Tuesday that 217 workers died on the job last year as a result of an unintentional overdose from the non-medical use of drugs or alcohol, up from 165 in 2015. The number of accidental overdose deaths at work has nearly tripled since the BLS began compiling the data in 2011.

The statistic is part of a bigger problem. Drug overdose deaths surpassed 64,000 last year, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Donald Trump in October declared opioid addiction, in particular, a national public health emergency.

Addiction experts are in wide agreement on the most effective way to help opioid addicts: medication-assisted treatment, but most inpatient rehab facilities in the U.S. don’t offer this option. WSJ’s Jason Bellini reports on why the medication option is controversial, and in many places, hard to come by.

“The surge in deaths, the abuse and the way in which this has turned into a crisis which encompasses so many elements, it’s not at all surprising this crisis has migrated” into the workplace, said John Deskins, an economist at West Virginia University.

The Department of Labor will respond by working “with public and private stakeholders to help eradicate the opioid crisis as a deadly and growing workplace issue,” said Loren Sweatt, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s deputy assistant secretary.

 Earlier this year, OSHA limited its reporting of fatalities in the U.S., as part of a series of moves by the agency cutting back the amount of information about workplace accidents made available to the public.

Drug and Alcohol Deaths at U.S. Workplaces Soar

Other causes of workplace death still dominated in 2016, a year during which the economy added 2.24 million new jobs.

Total fatal work injuries rose 7% to 5,190 in 2016, according to the report. Deaths due to workplace violence increased 23% last year from the year before, making that the second most common cause of death on the job in 2016 after transportation incidents. The number of workplace suicides rose 27% in 2016 from the year before, to 291, the highest number since the census began recording the number of suicides at work in 1992.

Drug abuse is taking a toll on the U.S. economy. The burden of prescription opioid abuse from crime, lost work productivity through absenteeism or poor job performance and health care costs is an estimated $78.5 billion a year, according to a 2013 study by the CDC.

The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book—a survey based on anecdotes collected from the central bank’s 12 regional banks—reported in July that manufacturers in the St. Louis region cited candidates’ inability to pass drug tests or to consistently report to work as a difficulty in hiring workers.

In a 2015 paper, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton termed the rise in mortality from suicide, drugs and alcohol since the late 1990s among middle-aged white Americans “deaths of despair.””

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