How EHS&S Professionals can Help Fight the Opioid Epidemic in the Workplace

The epidemic is vast, complex, and affects every community in every state in the country.  However, because the epidemic has at least some of its origins where we work, you, as an EHS&S professional have the ability to help put the brakes on this crisis.

In 2016 alone, approximately 3 million people suffered a nonfatal injury or illness at work. About one-third of these were severe enough to require time away from work. Since many injuries occur on the job and since opioids are prescribed for pain management the connection between occupational safety and the epidemic of addiction is clear.

According to the National Safety Council, four out of five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription opioids. This means that by focusing on reducing occupational hazards, we can help prevent opioid use before it starts.

And just as worker impairment is a concern for employers, so too is accidental occupational exposure to the substances.  When people spiral down the path of addiction, some are increasingly turning to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and its analogues. Fentanyl represents a hazard like few others. At 50 to 100 times the potency of morphine and highly addictive, the lethal dose of fentanyl is estimated to be two to three milligrams, which can be visualized as about seven grains of salt. Exposure to fentanyl, which may be found mixed with other drugs and toxic substances, can occur via inhalation, eye or other mucous membrane contact, or ingesting food that has been contaminated.

While exposure can occur through skin contact, absorption generally takes longer through that route. Symptoms of opioid intoxication can include constricted pupils, unusual drowsiness, confusion, slowed breathing. It’s important to remember that the signs that someone is addicted or intoxicated are not always easy to spot, so consulting with an expert in this area may be a good idea. The challenge for workers and employers alike is to be aware of and respond to these hazards without overreacting – to manage the risks that they present.

Those who struggle with addiction are more than statistics: They are co-workers, employees and personal friends. By understanding these complex relationships and the full scope of the opioid epidemic we can each do our part to help end this crisis.  Much work remains ahead of us, but progress is possible. By focusing on prevention and exposure risks you can supply your employees with the knowledge they need to make a difference.

About Mark Ames

Mark Ames serves as the Director of Government Relations for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA®), where he provides strategic direction and direct engagement for all State and Federal legislative and regulatory, and all other government relations activities for the Association.

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