Overdosing on the Job: Why It’s Becoming More Common

The United States is in a major opioid crisis. In 2017, there were 72,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., more than half of which were either heroin or synthetic opioids. This was a sharp increase from where they were just five years before. But now, overdoses are beginning to infiltrate another area of life: The workplace. Workplace overdoses are on the rise, and employers are struggling with how to handle it. But why?


Workplace overdose rates are rising. | Moussa81/iStock/Getty Images

Workplace overdoses increased by 32% between 2016 and 2017

2017 was a sad year for workplace overdoses. According to The New York Times, 217 workers died from unintentional drug or alcohol overdoses on the job in 2017. Many overdoses were due to opioids. Up 32% from the year before, many employers understand that it’s necessary to fix this problem. A whopping 70% of employers admitted that their workplaces had been affected by drug abuse in some way. Employees are missing work because of their addictions, failing drug tests, acting erratically on the job — and their employers are unsure of how to tackle the problem.

Drugs are mostly affecting blue collar workplaces

Not all workplaces are affected, but most have had drugs become a problem in some way or another. And it’s mostly blue collar workplaces that are seeing the biggest problems. The connection between drug problems are blue collar jobs is unclear but could be due to several factors, such as a lower education level leading more people to experiment with drugs. Those with drug addictions are often less productive at work and use far more sick days in a given year than those who are not addicted. In turn, the company’s productivity levels are affected.

The entertainment and construction industries have been hit the hardest — and injury could be to blame

Of the industries affected by drug abuse, construction and entertainment (including recreation and food businesses) have been hit the hardest. The New York Times reported that about 1.3 percent of construction workers are addicted to opioids, which is nearly double the rate for all working adults. According to the CDC, construction workers saw the highest rates of overdose (heroin- and methadone- related) of any industry between 2007 and 2012.

The reason for high addiction rates in the entertainment industry remains a bit more of a mystery, but in construction, people tend to get hurt on the job more easily, leading to an opioid prescription that can result in an addiction. Plus, the crisis is finding its way to every part of an abuser’s daily life. Workplace overdoses are rising because people are getting their fix on the job. For those addicted, it’s like a smoke break. And the worse the opioid crisis gets, the more common this will become.

Companies are unsure of how to handle the problem

Companies understand that opioid addictions are affecting their work environments and productivity levels, but it’s a touchy problem to try and solve. In past years, companies have not offered drug abuse help and instead have swept cases of addiction under the rug. They fire workers for having an addiction rather than offer help or create a solution. Overdosing on the job is becoming more common, and it’s imperative that employers join in the fight to stop it — not give up on their employees.

Little by little, companies are warming up to helping addicts rather than firing them

Major companies spent a total of $2.6 billion in 2016 to fight the opioid crisis among their employees. That’s a massive increase from the $300 million that was spent in 2004. More employers are requiring random drug testing, not with the intention of getting their employees in trouble, but with the hope that discovering an addiction will lead to recovery. Some employers help their addicted employees get into rehab facilities, too. But this is all very new. There are still many companies that have no contingency plan for addicted employees, though it’s not a problem most employees would be able to solve without help. The workplace overdoses are increasing, which means the employer outreach needs to increase as well.

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