New Study Finds Disturbing, Dramatic Increase in Worker Opioid Overdose Deaths; Advocates Demand Incoming Funds be Used for Preventive and Educational Services for Workers At-Risk

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By Joseph Smith

Today, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) released an update to a report on opioid-related overdose deaths (OROD) by industry and occupation covering the years 2011-2015 to include new data gathered from 2016-2017. The report, titled Opioid-related Overdose Deaths in Massachusetts by Industry and Occupation, 2016-2017, shows that the average annual rate of OROD among workers nearly doubled over the period studied and is being used by labor advocates to encourage public health policy leaders to direct incoming funds from opioid-related legal settlements to workplace-related prevention and recovery strategies.  The overall statewide rate of ORODs for all workers increased from 25.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in the period 2011 to 2015 to 46.1 in 2016-2017. However, two industries that suffer from the highest rates of workplace injury and pain were among the worst hit. The Construction industry and the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting industry,  saw tragic increases in the number of workers lost to ORODs. The Construction industry saw a high rate of ORODs (228.9 deaths per 100,000 workers) during 2016-2017, an 83% increase over the 2011-2015 rate (124.9 in 2011-2015). The Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting industry also showed a high rate of ORODs, more than doubling from 107.5 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2011-2015 vs. 220.8 in 2016-2017).   Hispanic workers also found themselves hard hit by increased ORODs. In 2011, the rate among Hispanic workers was about half the rate of white, non-Hispanic workers (the race/ethnicity with the highest rate of ORODs in the state), but, beginning in 2012, the Hispanic rate increased sharply each year as to be on par with the white, non-Hispanic rate by 2016. The study found that OROD rates were significantly higher among workers in occupation groups with lower percentages of workers covered by paid sick leave than among workers in occupation groups with higher percentages of those covered by leave. Hispanic workers were less likely to work jobs that had paid sick leave at the time, before the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law could impact the study, which may have contributed to the increase in the groups’ OROD rates.  The disturbing data regarding loss of workers only strengthens the correlation between workplace pain and injury and opioid misuse and overdose that was demonstrated by the initial study of 2011-2015 data. It also shows an unquestionable need for educational and preventive services focused on the workplace that have been proven to help workers who have been hurt on the job understand the risks of taking opioids to relieve pain. The data also points to the need to destigmatize recovery services for workers who have found themselves reliant on opioid medicines after being prescribed them after a workplace injury. 
Massachusetts is soon expected to receive an estimated $90 million from a resolution of a lawsuit against the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, a major opioid manufacturer and distributor. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) is calling on part of these funds to be directed to opioid workplace prevention strategies, such as the Opioid Peer Training Pilot Project created by MassCOSH and its partners. MassCOSH launched the project in 2019 with the goal of educating workers to better understand the risks of opioid painkillers, to be able to advocate for themselves while receiving medical care and to remove barriers to ending their addiction.  
Working with three union partners, Teamsters Local 25, Iron Workers Local 7, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, MassCOSH supported six union trainers to develop curricula tailored to their members, with 285 workers trained in total. Union leaders and project trainers expressed that the pilot exceeded expectations, generating many positive outcomes, including union members entering treatment and new support programs at worksites and union halls. 
MassCOSH is calling on the Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund Advisory Council, a diverse group of policymakers, public health professionals, legal experts, and clinicians appointed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and the state Attorney General to direct funds to the workplace prevention and recovery strategies like the Opioid Peer Training Pilot Project and other programs designed to help workers suffering from addiction. The council members are charged with developing recommendations for the expenditure of the incoming funds to mitigate the impacts of the opioid epidemic in the Commonwealth. 
“It is clear that work can be both a pathway to opioid use and addiction as well as a pathway to recovery, said MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. “We must do all we can to prevent the kinds of injury, stress, and pain that lead workers to opioid use and help them get the recovery services they need when it does happen.” 
The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented occupational health and safety crisis. MassCOSH is at the forefront of efforts to support workers in fighting for their rights to healthy and safe jobs. Please support MassCOSH to ensure that our work goes uninterrupted.
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