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On-the-Job Overdose Deaths Surging, BLS Reports

By Elaine Goodman (medical/business Reporter)

Friday, December 29, 2017 | 1046 | 0 | 228 min read

Workplace fatalities increased for the third year in a row in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and officials said the nation’s opioid crisis may have played a role in the trend.

Loren Sweatt

Loren Sweatt

Workplace fatalities reached 5,190 in the U.S. in 2016, a 7% increase from 4,836 fatal injuries in 2015, BLS reported this month in its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The fatal injury rate was 3.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, up from 3.4 in 2015 and the highest rate since 2010.

Transportation incidents were the most common cause of workplace deaths, accounting for 40% of fatal injuries. Violence was the second most common cause of workplace fatality.

On-the-job overdoses from the non-medical use of drugs or alcohol increased by 32%, from 165 in 2015 to 217 in 2016. Overdose fatalities have increased by at least 25% a year since 2012.

“The nation’s opioid crisis is impacting Americans every day at home and, as this data demonstrates, increasingly on the job,” Loren Sweatt, deputy assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement. “The Department of Labor will work with public and private stakeholders to help eradicate the opioid crisis as a deadly and growing workplace issue.”

But one observer questioned why OSHA focused mainly on the overdose statistic in its response to the BLS report.

“There are clearly other hazards that caused more deaths and had larger recent increases,” Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said in his Confined Space blog.

For example, trench collapse fatalities increased by 42% last year and have gone up by 177% since 2014, Barab said. There were 1,848 workplace deaths among employees older than 55, the highest number since BLS started collecting CFOI data in 1992.

And “now that Sweatt has raised the (opioid) issue, what can OSHA do about the problem, aside possibly from requiring employer first-aid kits to contain Narcan, a drug that can reverse narcotic overdoses?” he said.

The rising number of worker fatalities is a concern for the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group. Heightening that concern is the federal government’s move toward reducing regulation, said WILG President Amie Peters.

“We are concerned these numbers will continue going up,” Peters said. “Everybody needs to keep an eye toward worker safety as we move into the new year.”

The National Safety Council called the increase in fatalities “disheartening” and recommended that employers take a systematic approach to workplace safety.

“This includes having policies and training in place to address the major causes of fatalities as well as emerging issues such as prescription opioid misuse and fatigue,” NSC said in a statement.

NSC offers resources to help employers improve workplace safety, including a “tool kit” regarding prescription drug use on the job.

The increase in workplace fatalities comes despite an ongoing decline in the frequency of workers’ compensation lost-time claims. In its 2017 State of the Line report, the National Council of Compensation Insurance estimated a 4% drop in claim frequency between accident years 2015 and 2016. The long-term average annual change in lost-time claim frequency is a decrease of 3.6%, NCCI said.

While it might seem that workplace fatalities should be decreasing as the number of lost-time claims has fallen, Frank Neuhauser, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said the way BLS collects the fatality data could be masking a downward trend.

The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries casts a wide net that captures many fatalities that wouldn't be counted by workers’ comp agencies or insurers, Neuhauser said. For example, BLS includes deaths from drug overdoses and suicides in the census as well as other deaths that may occur at work but might not meet the workers’ comp criteria of arising out of employment and in the course of employment, he said.

Another key factor is that the CFOI includes fatalities to self-employed workers, who have much higher injury rates than wage and salary workers, Neuhauser said. Self-employed workers account for about 22% of CFOI fatalities.

“One reason to think this is a driver is that self-employment is much higher for older workers, and CFOI fatality rates are much higher for older workers,” Neuhauser said.

It’s also possible that BLS has become better over time at identifying fatalities that occur at work, he said.


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