A Hard Figure to Swallow

June 14, 2018

One year ago, after sifting through reams of data, MassCOSH reported that 70 workers lost their lives on the job in 2016: 61 as a result of fatal injuries and nine firefighters who died from work-related illness. However, the number of workers killed was much, much higher.

Like in previous years, MassCOSH did not include the number of workers who died in 2016 as a result of workplace suicides and overdoses. This is mostly because the data on those causes of death are not readily available on the same timeline as data on other fatalities. However, over the last year, the data has shown an alarming trend.

The number of workers who died as a result of these causes jumped from 11 in 2015 to 43 in 2016 – a 290% increase no doubt related to the opioid epidemic gripping our state and the nation. Counting these 43 workplace deaths, the number of fatalities in 2016 was 113, over 61% higher than the 70 we originally reported.

Over the last year, new data has demonstrated a link between workplace injury and opioid use/overdose. A study in Utah found that 57% of those who had an opioid-related overdose death had suffered a work-related injury, and 13% had experienced a work-related injury within three years of their death. Not surprisingly, higher rates of opioid overdose fatalities are found in occupations with the highest rates of injuries. In an analysis of opioid deaths by occupation, the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition found that 43% were in the building trades and/or laborers.

MassCOSH is not alone in our concern about the increased number of worker fatalities resulting from opioid overdose. Together, with the National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, we have convened a workgroup to create a workers’ rights approach to preventing and treating opioid addiction. Academic researchers, health and safety advocates, and representatives from a wide group of industries affected by the opioid epidemic have joined the conversation. We plan to better understand the link between workplace injury and opioid use so we can advocate for a workers’ rights approach to reducing addiction and overdose. We are exploring a wide range of points of intervention, including drug testing, health insurance coverage for addiction and recovery services, leave policies, right to return to work, workers’ compensation, and the right to a safe workplace.

With this heartbreaking trend continuing in 2018, we can no longer exclude these fatalities from our annual Dying for Work report. To exclude them is to exclude an important cause of workplace death that must be studied and addressed. Moving forward, future reports will address this concern. We want the families of those who have lost loved ones from workplace suicides and overdoses to know that we see you, we mourn with you, and together we will take action.