Overdose deaths at work increased at least 38 percent annually between 2013 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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An increase in overdoses — as well as drug-related deaths — in the workplace nationwide has led employers to evaluate their drug policies and agencies to expand their services to businesses.

A Dayton Daily News examination of new federal labor data found that it was the fifth consecutive year that unintentional workplace overdoses and drug-related deaths both increased by at least 25 percent nationwide.

“The scourge of opioid addiction unfortunately continues to take its toll on workers across the country,” said Loren Sweatt, acting assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News found that:

— State and local agencies are spending millions to educate employers and reduce drug use in the workplace.

— Montgomery County (Ohio) recorded 566 total overdose deaths in 2017. Preliminary numbers show deaths likely decreased to 294 last year. The coroner’s office told the Dayton Daily News that it doesn’t track workplace-specific overdose deaths.

— Overdose deaths at work increased at least 38 percent annually between 2013 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 217 workplace overdose deaths reported in 2016 accounted for 4.2 percent of occupational injury deaths that year, compared with 1.8 percent in 2013.

— Industries like construction and hospitality have higher rates of drug usage by workers, according to federal data.

— While overdoses in the workplace have increased nationwide, workplaces overall have become safer. That includes less deaths in Ohio.

Many workplaces in across the U.S. are unequipped to support employees dealing with addiction issues, according to Paula Cosby, external affairs director for Montgomery County Alcohol & Drug and Mental Health Services. The agency has launched two programs to combat opioid-related workplace issues.

For Messer, a large construction firm with a Dayton office, the opioid epidemic has reduced the pool of skilled craft workers.

The company hasn’t seen overdose issues on job sites because of a strict drug screening process, said Matt Schnelle, operations vice president for Messer in Dayton. The business has pre-employment drug screening for every worker, as well as random testing once someone is employed. Some companies that hire Messer for projects will require additional drug testing for workers coming to their site.

“Running heavy equipment, you’ve got to be on point mentally,” he said. “Having someone who is impaired is not an option. It’s something we’re focused on to maintain a drug-free workplace. Our clients are focused on it.”

How the Dayton community responded

Montgomery County is one of three counties in Ohio to pilot a new, two-year Opioid Workplace Safety Program under the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

The program provides up to $5 million over the next two years to help employers hire, manage and retain employees in recovery from addiction in Montgomery, Ross and Scioto counties.

The program covers costs for drug testing and training managers to supervise individuals in recovery. Homefull and ViaQuest Home Health & Hospice are the first employers to participate, Cosby said.

Employers have a lot to gain from retaining people in addiction recovery — and the financial incentive can be considerable since the cost of retention is far less than the cost of employee turnover, Cosby said.

“Often times, individuals in recovery have been in jobs and have skills just like you or me,” she said. “They are highly skilled but hit a bump in the road. Employers find they are very loyal, hardworking, motivated.”

But the use of any drug or alcohol in physically demanding industries, like construction, is especially concerning because of the increased probability of injury, a group of attorneys from Dayton-based law firm Auman, Mahan & Furry said. Many employers have revised drug policies — either enforcing a strict “zero-tolerance” drug policy or working with recovering addicts by giving them one opportunity to seek help before termination.

For companies in physically intensive industries, a zero-tolerance policy ensures drug users won’t injure other workers or compromise the safety and quality of a construction project, the lawyers said.

Montgomery County Alcohol & Drug and Mental Health Services also offers its Wellness at Work program, intensive two-day training for employers to learn more about second-chance policies, reducing liabilities for hiring or retaining and best practices during the opioid epidemic. The training is hosted quarterly, with the next round of classes occurring on Feb. 7 and Feb. 21.

The Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce also has ramped up efforts and partnerships to provide support and educate employers about substance abuse in the workplace, said Chris Kershner, chamber executive vice president.

The Dayton Miami Valley Safety Council, run by the chamber, has focused on educating employers on all drug-related issues in the workplace. The council hosted an employer education seminar on Jan. 17 about medical marijuana in the workplace.

“This is not an issue that is unique to Dayton, this is an issue facing communities and employers across the country,” Kershner said.

Workers with a current substance use disorder miss an average of 14.8 days per year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Those who specifically abuse pain medication miss an average of 29 days per year. That’s in contrast to an average of 10.5 days for most employees, the survey says, and an average 9.5 days for workers in recovery from substance abuse.

Employers also can see output drain from employees affected by the opioid epidemic.

Researching rehab centers for loved ones was more important than finishing a daily task at work for some local workers, according to an informal survey conducted by Families of Addicts. Lori Erion, founder of the Dayton nonprofit, said friends and family members of addicts reported in the survey they were less productive at work due to their personal issues.

“Their accuracy was affected, their tardiness,” she said. “Some people had to quit their jobs as a result.”

FOA has started a new lunch and learn initiative to offer support to businesses across the region. The group will kick off with a presentation at LexisNexis about its services.

Most programs focus on individuals in recovery. But this program is unique, Erion said, because it helps family members deal with emotional issues in the workplace.

“A healthy lifestyle trickles down through the family,” she said. “We want to offer one-one-one supports or have someone on hand at a location if they need to talk to someone or ask for resources.”

Industries at higher risk

A recent report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that work injuries and illnesses are often the reason opioids are prescribed in the first place. The opioid epidemic can also affect the ability of a person to return to work, negatively affecting their livelihood, the report says.

If workers are under the influence of opioids at work, the report says, they’re likely to be at increased risk for injury. For workers in industries requiring physical labor — such as people in transportation and operators of heavy equipment — there will be “increased risks for catastrophic events that impact many besides the worker,” it says.

“The opioid epidemic reaches into every aspect of American life — including the workplace,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said.

Workplaces overall have become safer for workers, even as overdoses increased in recent years. Fatal occupational injuries in the private manufacturing and wholesale trade industries reached their lowest points since the federal labor data was first issued in 1992.

Twenty-eight worker fatalities were reported in Ohio in 2018, a decrease from the 52 worker fatalities reported in 2017, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of state data.

Certain jobs, such as construction or mining, might have a higher risk of death from opioids, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that looked at drug overdose deaths within 26 job groups. Workers in the hospitality and fishing industries have also been deeply affected by the opioid epidemic.

Dr. F. Stuart Leeds, a family medicine physician with Wright State Physicians, said many people in high injury rate professions, like construction-related trades, end up using opioids to treat pain. Some workers will misuse opioids — including street drugs — to treat their pain so they can get back to work.

“It’s an express lane to addiction,” he said.

Some employers have taken preventive measure like having the overdose-reversal drug naloxone on hand, said Dayton-based attorney Amy Mitchell.

“I haven’t specifically dealt with it in this region,” Mitchell said. “I think we could see it going that way.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has advised companies to consider implementing a program to make naloxone available in the workplace in case of an overdose. NIOSH advised companies to consider the liability and legal ramifications of such a program.

The institute also suggested a program should identify staff members willing to be trained to administer the drug.