NIOSH Confronts the Opioid Crisis and How It Affects Workers
Volume 16, Number 4 (August 2018)
From the Director’s Desk
John Howard, M.D.
One of the most pressing public health challenges our nation faces today is the epidemic of opioid overdoses. According to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, opioids (including prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl) killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, more than any year on record.
The effects of opioid use and misuse are not isolated to just one part of society. According to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, 95% of the total U.S. drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2016 were among the working age population, persons aged 15–64 years. While we do not know how many of these individuals were employed at the time of their overdose, we do know that the work environment, including potential work-related injuries, can increase the potential for opioid use.
The opioid overdose epidemic has also worsened with a rise in the use of illicit opioids or other drugs, like cocaine and heroin, which can be contaminated with potent opioids like fentanyl. The increased prevalence of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and their analogues (equivalents) has also become an emerging threat to law enforcement officers, fire fighters, first responders, ambulance attendants, and others who may be exposed in the course of their work. We have worked closely with our partners to develop guidance for emergency responders and healthcare workers who are at risk for exposure to fentanyl and its analogues, sharing that guidance on web pages focused on the issue.
We recently released a new web page to outline NIOSH’s approach to this important topic. Our approach considers the “lifecycle” of opioid use, from precursors in the workplace, to use conditions, to containment and decontamination, and to recommendations targeted for protecting workers.
This framework details the approach of examining workplace conditions that can be risk factors for medically prescribed opioid use becoming opioid misuse, protecting responders from exposure to fentanyls and their equivalents, developing methods of rapid detection of dangerously potent opioids in a workplace, and providing information about effective decontamination of workplaces.
We all have an important role in preventing opioid overdose deaths through education, partnership, and collaboration. Improving communication and collaboration between public health and public safety can help identify changes in illicit drug supply and coordinate a more timely and effective response.
NIOSH, along with our partners, will continue to develop resources to provide guidance and education to help workers and employers stay safe.
Learn more on our opioid website.