Work Injuries Contribute to Opioid-Related Deaths

Pills and a bottle

Using opioids to medicate pain caused by workplace injuries for more than a week can exacerbate the danger, according to a study by Boston University researchers, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

If a person is out of work due to an on-the-job injury, the more likely they are to take their own life or die from an opioid overdose, the study found. In fact, the combined risk of suicide and overdose death among the study’s women tripled if they were off of work for a week or more, and the risk rose by 50% among men.

“These findings suggest that work-related injuries contribute to the rapid increase in deaths from both opioids and suicides,” Leslie Boden, BU professor of environmental health and the report’s senior author, said in a BU School of Public Health blog post.

Boden and his colleagues analyzed data on 100,806 workers in New Mexico, 36,034 of whom had lost-time injuries from 1994 through 2000. The researchers used workers’ compensation data for that period, Social Security Administration earnings and mortality data through 2013, and National Death Index cause of death data through 2017.

Men in the study who had lost time on the job due to a workplace injury were 72% more likely to die from suicide and 29% more likely to die from drug-related causes, as well as higher death rates from cardiovascular diseases. Women with lost-time injuries were 92% more likely to die from suicide and 193% more likely to die from drug-related causes.

“Improved pain treatment, better treatment of substance use disorders, and treatment of post-injury depression may substantially improve quality of life and reduce mortality from workplace injuries,” Boden said.

The use of opioids for any length of recovery period is increasingly seen as a potentially dangerous practice, statistics show. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four people prescribed opioids for long-term pain become addicted, increasing the chance for an overdose. More than over 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid, CDC data shows.

Construction workers are particularly at risk because the industry has one of the highest injury rates and opioids are often prescribed to treat the pain these injuries cause, per The Construction Chart Bookby The Center for Construction Research and Training.

The problem within the construction industry is particularly acute in Massachusetts, one of the highest-ranking states for drug overdose deaths involving opioids. Construction workers represented 25% of all fatal opioid overdoses among the state's workers from 2011 to 2015, according to the state's Department of Public Health.  

In response to the problem, the Massachusetts AGC, in cooperation with a number of construction companies and labor unions in the state, stopped work on approximately 50 sites for a stand-down day on June 5. 

"It was clear we had to do something," said Robert Petrucelli, CEO of the Massachusetts AGC. "No one talks about this, but it permeates our industry."

About the Author

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than three decades of experience writing about the construction industry, and her articles have been featured in the Associated General Contractor’s Constructor magazine, the American Fence Association’s Fencepost, the...

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