Workplace Injuries Tied to Increased Chance of Opiate Overdose In Landmark New Study

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A study released Wednesday by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows that workers in industries with higher risk of injury die of opiate overdoses at a rate five or six times higher than average workers. Lack of sick pay and job security is also a contributing factor.


People need money to survive, to keep their families housed, their children fed, their medical bills paid. Taking drugs, legally or illegally, to get through pain and get paid is a necessity for many workers, regardless of the consequences.

“There is a lot of pressure to work in pain,” Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, told the Boston Globe on Wednesday. “Construction is the occupation in which people have the highest rate of work-related injury and the highest rate of work-related fatality... Reducing workplace injury is a key strategy to reduce opioid use and addiction.”

Construction was the number one occupation of people who died from opiate overdoses in Massachusetts. From the Globe:

Funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study analyzed the death certificates of 4,302 Massachusetts residents who died of opioid-related overdoses from 2011 to 2015 and whose death records listed an occupation.

Nearly a quarter of those deaths were among people, mostly men, who worked in construction. These workers were six times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than other workers in Massachusetts. [...]

Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier, medical director for addictions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, found the study “unsurprising” based on his experiences with many patients who work in construction. They tell him drugs are commonly available on job sites.

“It’s incredibly common for people to report that other people in their workplace have pills,” he said.

Typically people are not using at work to get high, although that happens, he said. More often, “people are getting hurt, and getting offered stuff on the job.”

This study should put to rest any doubts about the link between workers rights, addiction, and healthcare. Precarious workplaces are quite literally killing people. It’s also a good rebuke to the stereotypical image of an addict as someone out of work and using drugs to get high (though those people also deserve our empathy and care).

One of the defining traits of the latest opiate crisis is how many people are using them while continuing their normal lives—at least as long as they can afford it. Many addicts today were prescribed opiates by their doctor, and never intended to use drugs illegally. There are simple measures that could prevent more people from falling into this trap. Legislating for paid sick leave and other strong labor regulations should be high on the list.