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Injured Workers More Likely to Die from Opioid Overdoses, Study Finds

06 Jun, 2024 Liz Carey

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Boston, MA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A new study from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has found that Massachusetts residents were 35 percent more likely to die of an opioid-related overdoses if they had been injured at work.

The study, released in late May, used the Public Health Data Warehouse and compiled information about working-age Massachusetts residents who died between 2011 and 2020, and workers’ compensation claims. The new report linked the aftermath of work-related injuries to opioid-related overdose deaths. By linking the two data sets, DPH found that of the 4,304 residents who died and had at least one workplace injury claim, 17.2 percent died of an opioid-related overdose.

Those injured workers who died from an opioid-related overdose were more likely to be male, between 25 and 44 years old, Hispanic, U.S.-born, and working in the construction and extraction or food service industry sectors. Those injured workers who died were most likely to suffer from sprains and strains, especially in the back, the report said. Officials said the information allowed DPH to look at the correlation between acute and chronic pain from occupational injuries and opioid use and death.

“Occupational injuries can take both a physical and mental toll, and those who suffer injuries at work may be discouraged from seeking help because of stigmatization and fear of losing their jobs. Avoiding or delaying care can lead to a preventable overdose death,” DPH Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh said in a statement. “In order for us to properly address the overdose crisis, we must eliminate the stigma that accompanies substance use disorder in all sectors of society, including the workplace. We are prioritizing investments in community support, prevention, and treatment programs and reducing any barriers to treatment, all of which can help prevent overdose deaths.”

The study found that workers in physically demanding work, and in industries and occupations with higher rates of workplace injuries, are disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic. The majority of the 741 Massachusetts workers who died from opioid overdoses after being injured at work were employed in construction and extraction, data showed, followed by transportation and material-moving, the food service and preparation.

Other work-related factors, like low rates of paid sick leave, low wages and high job insecurity, put more pressure on workers to continue to work while ill or injured, and to not seek medical or substance use treatment for fear of losing wages.

“Overdose deaths are preventable, and we must continue to focus relentlessly on finding ways to prevent opioid addiction from stealing more lives,” Department of Public Health Commissioner Robbie Goldstein, MD, PhD said. “The data are clear: Individuals who suffer work-related injuries are at a heightened risk of substance use disorders – and overdose deaths. By recognizing and acting upon this association, we can target interventions that can save lives and protect the well-being of workers, especially those in physically demanding occupations who are disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic.”

DPH officials have said they have developed a comprehensive website using federal grant funding to provide employers with training and other resource materials that increase opioid awareness and help employers implement policies and practices aimed at opioid abuse and overdose prevention and recovery. Additionally, DPH said it had recently provided funding to the University of Massachusetts Lowell to evaluate and improve the Opioid Alternative Treatment Pathway program, run by the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents, which oversees the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Nationally, according to the National Safety Council, since 2011, unintentional overdose deaths from the nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol in the workplace have increased more than 600 percent. In 2022, overdose deaths accounted for 525 deaths, the equivalent of nearly 10 percent of all occupational injury deaths that year. Increases in unintentional overdose deaths have been experienced amongst all employee demographics, industries and occupations.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overall drug overdose deaths continue to rise. In 2022, 107,941 drug overdose deaths were reported. Primarily, deaths involving synthetic opioids (mostly fentanyl) caused 73,838 deaths that year. Deaths involving stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine, accounted for 27,569 and 34,022, respectively, that year.

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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