Opioids in the Workplace: Data

tablet and charts on a table


The US is in the midst of a drug overdose epidemic. In 2019, there were 70,630 drug overdose deaths in the United States, a nearly 5% increase from 2018. More than 49,800 overdose deaths involved opioids in 2019, with more than 36,300 involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (largely illicitly manufactured fentanyl).1

Preliminary data suggest that drug overdose deaths have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.2

Understanding the Opioid Crisis

30% – According to a study using State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS) data, drug overdose deaths increased 30% in the United States from 2019 to 2020.3

  • In just one year, overdose death rates (number of drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people) increased 44% for Black people and 39% for American Indian and Alaska Native people. 3
  • As county-level income inequality increased, overdose rates increased, particularly among Black persons. 3

3.6% –According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, an estimated 3.6% of respondents aged 18 years or older reported misuse of prescription pain relievers or heroin in 2020. An estimated 43% of these persons who self-reported misuse of prescription pain relievers were employed full- or part-time4

75% — Based on a survey conducted by the National Safety Council, 75% of employers report that opioid use has impacted their workplace, but only 17% report being extremely well-prepared to address the issue.5

8.1% – The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 388 of the 4,786 fatal work injury deaths in 2020 were from unintentional overdose from nonmedical use of drugs.  These deaths occurred at work.  It is unknown how many of these deaths involved opioids specifically.6

  • While overdose deaths at work occur in a variety of industries, they are more common in some industries. In a NIOSH analysis of BLS data for the years 2011 to 2016, 43% of drug overdose deaths at work occurred in only three industries – Transportation & Warehousing, Construction, and Healthcare & Social Assistance.7
  • The incidence of drug overdose deaths at work varies by state. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 54 unintentional drug overdose deaths at work between 2016 and 2017, making unintentional overdoses the leading cause of injury death at work in the state.8

14.8 days – Workers with a current substance use disorder miss an average of 14.8 days per year, while the subset with a pain medication use disorder miss an average of 29 days per year.  This is in contrast to an average of 10.5 days for most employees, and an average 9.5 days for workers in recovery from a substance use disorder.9

Workers’ Compensation Data

In 2005, Franklin et al. published a peer-reviewed paper that not only identified an unusual increase in unintentional opioid-involved overdose deaths but also determined that these deaths occurred to workers who were prescribed opioids for non-catastrophic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome or low back pain and over half were prescribed a schedule II opioid.10, 11 The findings by Franklin et al. led, in part, to the development-by a consortium of Washington state agencies that purchase or regulate health care and the 2007 implementation of the first US opioid prescribing guidelines.10, 12

1 – Mattson, C.L., Tanz, L.J., Quinn, K., Kariisa, M., Patel, P., Davis, N.L. (2021). Trends and Geographic Patterns in Drug and Synthetic Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2013–2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021; 70:202–207. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7006a4

2 – Ahmad, F.B., Rossen, L.M., Sutton, P. (2021). Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts. National Center for Health Statistics. Designed by L.M. Rossen, A. Lipphardt, F.B. Ahmad, J.M. Keralis, and Y. Chong: National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm

3 – Kariisa M, Davis NL, Kumar S, et al. Vital Signs: Drug Overdose Deaths, by Selected Sociodemographic and Social Determinants of Health Characteristics — 25 States and the District of Columbia, 2019–2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 19 July 2022. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7129e2.

4 – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2020). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables, Table 1.61 A,B. 2019—2020. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt35323/NSDUHDetailedTabs2020/NSDUHDetailedTabs2020/NSDUHDetTabsSect1pe2020.htm#tab1-61a

5 – National Safety Council. (2019). National Employer Survey 2019. Poll: 75% of Employers Say Their Workplace Impacted by Opioid Use. https://www.nsc.org/newsroom/poll-75-of-employers-say-their-workplace-impacted

6 – Bureau of Labor Statistics.  (2021).  Economic News Release: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2020.  Washington, DC:  Bureau of Labor Statistics, Update, December 16, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm

7 – Tiesman, H.M., Konda, S., Cimineri, L., et al. (2019). Drug overdose deaths at work, 2011–2016 Injury Prevention 2019; 25:577-580. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/injuryprev-2018-043104

8 – Massachusetts Department of Public Health: Occupational Health Surveillance Program. (2019). Fatal Injuries at Work: Massachusetts Fatality Update, 2016-2017. https://www.mass.gov/lists/fatal-work-related-injury-reports-and-publications

9 – Goplerud E., Hodge S., & Benham T. (2017). A Substance Use Cost Calculator for US Employers With an Emphasis on Prescription Pain Medication Misuse. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 59(11), 1063–1071. https://doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0000000000001157

10 – Quinones, S. (2015). Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Bloomsbury Press. Pgs 202-205, 232-235, 310.

11– Franklin, G. M., Mai, J., Wickizer, T., Turner, J. A., Fulton-Kehoe, D., & Grant, L. (2005). Opioid dosing trends and mortality in Washington State workers’ compensation, 1996-2002. American journal of industrial medicine, 48(2), 91–99. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.20191

12 – Franklin, G., Sabel, J., Jones, C. M., Mai, J., Baumgartner, C., Banta-Green, C. J., Neven, D., & Tauben, D. J. (2015). A comprehensive approach to address the prescription opioid epidemic in Washington State: milestones and lessons learned. American journal of public health, 105(3), 463–469. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302367

13 – Colón, D., Chadarevian, R. (2020). COVID-19’s Impact on Medical Treatment in Workers Compensation—A First Look at 2020. National Council on Compensation Insurance. https://www.ncci.com/Articles/Documents/Insights_COVID-19sImpact-Medical-TreatmentWC-AFirstLook2020.pdf

14 – National Council on Compensation Insurance. (2022). Medical Indicators & Trends, Q3 2021 Edition

15 – Wang, D., Thumula, V., Liu, T-C. (2019). Interstate Variations in Dispensing of Opioids. National Council on Compensation Insurance, 5th Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, Update, July 31, 2019, WC-19-26. https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/interstate-variations-in-dispensing-of-opioids-5th-edition

16 – National Council on Compensation Insurance. (2017). Medical Data Report Opioid Utilization Supplement For the state of: New Mexico. Update, September 2017. https://workerscomp.nm.gov/sites/default/files/documents/publications/NM_Opioid_Supplement_2017.pdf

17 – Neumark, D., Savych, B., Lea R. (2018). The Impact of Opioid Prescriptions on Duration of Temporary Disability. Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Update, March 6, 2018, WC-18-18. https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/the-impact-of-opioid-prescriptions-on-duration-of-temporary-disability

18 – Garg, R. K., Fulton-Kehoe, D., Turner, J. A., Bauer, A. M., Wickizer, T., Sullivan, M. D., & Franklin, G. M. (2013). Changes in opioid prescribing for Washington workers’ compensation claimants after implementation of an opioid dosing guideline for chronic noncancer pain: 2004 to 2010. The journal of pain, 14(12), 1620–1628. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2013.08.001

19 – Franklin, G. M., Mai, J., Turner, J., Sullivan, M., Wickizer, T., & Fulton-Kehoe, D. (2012). Bending the prescription opioid dosing and mortality curves: impact of the Washington State opioid dosing guideline. American journal of industrial medicine, 55(4), 325–331. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.21998

20 – Ben-Shalom, Y., McIntyre, M., Pu, J., Shenk, M., Zhu, W., Shaw, W. (2020). Workers’ Compensation and the Opioid Epidemic – State of the Field in Opioid Prescription Management. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/OASP/evaluation/pdf/OWCP_OpioidPrescriptionManagement1_FinalReport_Aug2020.pdf

21 – Rothkin, K., Hopkins, E. (2020). Workers’ Compensation Prescription Drug Regulations: A National Inventory, 2020. Update, June, 2020, WC-20-261. https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/workers-compensation-prescription-drug-regulations-a-national-inventory-2020

22 – Moss R., Colón D. (2021). Drug Formulary Implementations – A Look at Impact on Workers Compensation Prescription Drug Experience. https://www.ncci.com/Articles/Pages/Insights-Drug-Formulary-Implementations.aspx

23 – Neumark, D., Savych, B. (2021). Effects of Opioid-Related Policies on Opioid Utilization, Nature of Medical Care, and Duration of Disability. https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/effects-of-opioid-related-policies-on-opioid-utilization-nature-of-medical-care-and-duration-of-disability

24 – Sears, JM, Haight, JR, Fulton-Kehoe, D, Wickizer, TM, Mai, J, Franklin, GM. Changes in early high-risk opioid prescribing practices after policy interventions in Washington State. Health Serv Res. 2021; 56: 49– 60. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6773.13564

25 – Wise C. (2020). Opioid Prescribing Across Industry Groups. https://www.ncci.com/Articles/Pages/Insights-Opioid-Prescribing.aspx

26 – Thumula, V., Liu, T-C. (2018). Correlates of Opioid Dispensing. Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Update, December 2018, WC-18-48.https://www.wcrinet.org/images/uploads/files/wcri8394.pdf

Page last reviewed: January 30, 2019