One topic in Nancy Grover’s inaugural “5 Things You Need to Know” segment on this website this morning really caught my eye. She writes about the just released Bureau of Labor Statistics report outlining workplace deaths for the year 2017. She reports that there was a 25% increase in “unintentional workplace overdose deaths” that year. The prior year there had been 217; in 2017 that grew to 272 such deaths. 

I know this will be a shock to many of you, as it is something that repeatedly surprises me, but despite an overwhelming and largely unjustified sense of self-confidence, I don’t actually know everything. Now, with that little confession and acknowledgment out of the way, I am free to ask some relatively ignorant questions about this particular category of workplace death with which, until this morning, I was largely unfamiliar. 

The questions that first popped into my head were, what exactly is an unintentional workplace overdose death? And is there such a thing as an intentional workplace overdose death? It would seem to me that the intentional declaration of one implies the existence of the other, but looking at the details a bit, no “intentional overdose” category seems to exist. 

Also, what industry would likely see the largest amount of these types of fatalities? Are these generally compensable deaths? And, if so, what on earth could their job be that would put the cause within the course and scope of employment at the time of their death?

Looking through the detailed BLS list of workplace death categories one will find a cavalcade of unpleasant ways with which to meet one’s demise. There were 108 people in 2017 who met their maker after being “Caught in or compressed by equipment or objects.” 76 were “Caught in running equipment or machinery.” Yet another 70 were “Struck, caught, or crushed in collapsing structure, equipment, or material.” The biggie on the list, “Transportation incidents,” saw a whopping 2,077 victims, while the 1st runner up, “Roadway incident involving motorized land vehicle” saw 1,299 victims. Still, those descriptions, however gruesome, are fairly easy to comprehend. The “Nonmedical use of drugs or alcohol unintentional overdose” category, however, remains as a curiosity as to how we could have so many people die in that way. 

Unless, of course, we look at the longer trend within that area. As disappointing as it may be to acknowledge a 25% increase in deaths in any statistical grouping for a single year, the numbers over the last 7 years in this area likely reflect a larger societal issue that we have been grappling with. The sad and largely unreported fact is that, since 2011, we have seen an increase of over 372% in this class. In that year there were only 73 such drug related deaths. While there was a slight drop to 65 in 2012, it started rising dramatically after that, more than doubling since 2014. 

Even though the category is listed as “nonmedical use of alcohol and drugs,” I suspect it is a reflection of the related addiction problems we are seeing with the as yet to be resolved opioid issue; which means that, while any workplace death is tragic, these particular deaths would be especially heinous. These are not people who were fatally injured by a malfunctioning machine or momentary bad decision; they may have been people killed by a malfunctioning system and the bad decisions of others. 

And in this context, quite frankly, it gives the word “unintentional” a starkly more somber meaning.


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