Opioids in the Workplace

Opioids in the workplace remains an everpresent problem. But employers can play a vital role in helping workers seek and achieve recovery. Unions can too.

So say recovery experts meeting and workshopping at UMass Lowell. The experts were hosted by The New England Consortium, a worker health and safety training center in the university’s College of Health Sciences,. And they’re especially concerned with how the opioid crisis affects workplace safety and worker health.

It’s a daunting issue to be sure. And not just in New England either. In fact, three-quarters of people using opioids are currently working. Many of them became addicted because of job-related injuries and stress. None of them represent the stereotypical opioid addict.

“When most people think of opioid addiction, they think of someone who is hungry and homeless, living under an overpass,” said Joseph Hughes, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). “But that’s only the end of a long chain of addiction that starts at home for breadwinners with families.”

“How to break that chain is the challenge we face today,” he continued. “The hope is that our training with UMass Lowell and others can start this conversation about addiction and mental health in the workplace.”

Hughes’ sentiments were echoed by Economics Research Prof. David Turcotte, principal investigator for The New England Consortium, Dean of Health Sciences Shortie McKinney and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen. They too encouraged industry, labor unions and nonprofits to use UMass Lowell as a resource for opioid workplace research and training. 

“We know you’re working with this issue every day,” said Chen. “We want to be right there with you as a partner in your efforts.”

Workplace Opioid Research

To that end the university has spearheaded research into opioid use disorders and barriers to treatment among fishing industry workers, which industries have the highest rates of addiction, and the correlation between workplace injuries and suicide, by overdose or otherwise. One key finding: construction workers are six times more likely to die of an overdose than the average worker.

Opioids in the workplace is also an issue for nurses or anyone else who has a physically demanding job.

If occupational stress and injuries can lead to addiction, then employers and labor unions should in turn provide vital support and motivation for workers to seek recovery. Good jobs don’t simply provide a paycheck. They also provide stability, structure, a sense of purpose and identity, and social support. Things people struggling with opioid use disorder and mental health issues so desperately need.

“One of the worst things you can do to a person struggling with addiction is to fire them,” said the university’s Jonathan Rosen. We couldn’t agree more.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know is suffering from Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), please get in touch with ALEF. We’re here to help.

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