Tackling A Worrisome Employee Health Threat

A new program aims to rein in the mounting rate of on-the-job drug overdoses.

It’s safe to say that protecting employee health and safety is a constantly evolving pursuit. Moreover, that evolution can take some unpredictable turns. Such is the case when it comes to the difficult health issue of workplace overdoses. 

What we do for a living doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the health issues people have in their personal lives can and will cross over into their workplace. Given the U.S. opioid epidemic, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that employers are now witnessing a rapidly growing number of overdose deaths in the workplace.

The statistics are staggering: Staring with broad national numbers, the United States saw a 17.6 percent leap in drug overdose deaths in 2021, with a record 98,268 people perishing that year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Looking specifically at the workplace, overdose deaths from non-medical use of drugs or alcohol at work skyrocketed by 536 percent between 2011 and 2021, according to National Safety Council analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Overdose deaths on the job totaled 464 in 2021, representing nearly one in 11 worker deaths.

Fortunately, the NSC recently responded to the mounting number of on-the-job overdose deaths with the Respond Ready Workplace program, which aims to cut the rate of those fatalities. Respond Ready Workplace intends to accomplish this through various means, but one of its cornerstone methods is to get overdose treatment drugs such as naloxone into workplace first aid kits and to train employees on how to use them. 

The timing is ideal given that the Food and Drug Administration recently responded to this epidemic by approving two opioid overdose drugs for over-the-counter use this year. On July 28, the FDA approved RiVive, 3-milligram naloxone hydrochloride nasal spray for OTC use for the emergency treatment of opioid overdose. That followed the FDA’s March 29 approval of Narcan, 4-milligram naloxone hydrochloride nasal spray for the same non-prescription use.

Also, developing the right stakeholder relationships will also play a key role in expanding awareness of the issue, says Janice Hartgens, MPH, BSBA, RN, COHN-S, NSC’s vice president of Respond Ready Workplace. That outreach will likely include human resources professionals, health and safety professionals, employees and management.

I’m encouraged by this effort and applaud NSC for getting out ahead of a difficult health and safety issue. Employers need to be ready to support employee health issues however they might arise in the workplace and regardless of where they might begin or why. 

“The workplace is a microcosm of society,” Hargens noted during October’s NSC Safety Congress & Expo. “People do not leave themselves outside; they bring everything in. So, employers have to be ready to address everything.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

David Kopf is the publisher and executive editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine.

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