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Illustration by Security Management

Pandemic, Recession Heighten Risk of Fatal Opioid Overdoses

Safety and governmental organizations are warning about spikes in fatal opioid overdoses in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yesterday, the U.S. National Safety Council (NSC) called on employers to prioritize employee stress, emotional, and mental health during the pandemic—both during stay-at-home orders and workplace reopening phases. Additionally the NSC warned that employers should prepare for an increase in substance misuse, which could pose a serious threat to worker safety and cost employers tens of thousands of dollars in productivity losses, absenteeism, presenteeism, and worker’s compensation claims.

At least 30 U.S. states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, the American Medical Association found.

Additionally, the U.S. Government Accountability Organization (GAO) announced in March that it would add drug misuse—the use of illicit drugs or misuse of prescription drugs—to its High Risk List in 2021. In its report on the subject, Drug Misuse: Sustained National Efforts Are Necessary for Prevention, Response, and Recovery, the GAO noted that drug misuse rates have increased in the United States since 2002, and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 53 million people misused or abused drugs in 2018.

The GAO report also noted that “the severe public health and economic effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could fuel some of the contributing factors of drug misuse, such as unemployment—highlighting the need to sustain and build upon ongoing efforts.”

Opioids in particular have been a high risk for U.S. employees and employers. In 2017, an estimated 47,000 people in the United States died of opioid overdoses, either from prescribed opioid pain relievers, heroin, or illicitly manufactured fentanyl. According to 2019 NSC data, Americans are more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a motor vehicle crash.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 5 percent of workplace deaths are overdoses.

According to Dr. L. Casey Chosewood, director of the Office for Total Worker Health within the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the opioid epidemic hit earliest and hardest in areas largely affected by the 2008 recession, as reported in the November 2019 edition of Security Management.

Economists are projecting an even worse economic downturn as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to new projections from The World Bank, advanced economics are projected to shrink 7 percent, and most countries are expected to face recessions in 2020.

“Over the longer horizon, the deep recessions triggered by the pandemic are expected to leave lasting scars through lower investment, an erosion of human capital through lost work and schooling, and fragmentation of global trade and supply linkages,” The World Bank noted.

According to a press release from the NSC, “trauma, economic distress, and unemployment increase risk for mental health issues and substance use disorders. The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the threat of mental health distress in several ways, including stress caused by financial, unemployment, child/family care instabilities, as well as fear of themselves or loved ones being exposed to or infected by COVID-19. Extended social isolation can lead to the development of substance use disorders. Those with previous substance abuse disorders are even more vulnerable due to decreased accessibility to treatment, recovery supports, and harm reduction services, all as a result of the pandemic.”

Security Management connected over email with Rachael Cooper, senior program manager for the NSC, to get more information.

SM. How does substance misuse threaten workplace safety?

RC. Organizations want their employees to be mentally and physically healthy in order to perform their best work. When an employee starts misusing a substance, it can affect their performance, negatively impact the business, and jeopardize their safety, as well as the safety of others.

Opioid misuse, in particular, has impacted organizations across the country. In fact, a National Safety Council survey indicated 38 percent of U.S. employers have experienced absenteeism or impaired worker performance because of employee opioid use, and 31 percent have had an overdose, arrest, a near-miss or an injury occur in their workplace. Overall, 75 percent of respondents reported that opioid misuse had impacted their business.

The National Safety Council helps employers address opioid misuse with its Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit, which is available for free download at The benefits of supporting employees through treatment and into recovery are clear. Employees who are in recovery have equal or lower healthcare costs, absenteeism, and job turnover compared to employees who never report a substance use disorder. Employers who help employees complete treatment are likely to see a high return on investment when working with employees throughout treatment to achieve recovery.

SM. How can employers help address mental health challenges before workers reenter facilities (remote workforce or otherwise)?

RC. NSC strongly encourages employers to have a comprehensive mental and wellbeing plan as part of their return-to-work plans. It is the responsibility of employers to address mental health and wellbeing within their organization by leveraging employee assistance programs (EAPs), providing employees with contact information for mental health services, and openly acknowledging and discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health.

In addition, employers can provide education about mental health and wellness, as well as increased communication about options for assistance, to ensure employees seek out the help they need. Employers should remember that mental health impacts related to COVID-19 can take weeks or months to show up—it is critical they extend this component of their return-to-work plan beyond the initial weeks of return.

SM. Are there any safety/security challenges that employers should be aware of?

RC. To help keep their workers safe, employers need their employees to be focused on the job. When an employee’s focus shifts away from the work at hand because of mental health issues and/or substance misuse, they are not only putting their own safety in danger, but also the safety of others. Including assistance for employees to address mental health issues in return-to-work plans will help employers ensure a safe, healthy, and productive workplace.


For more about managing mental health and workplace stress, check out this free video series from ASIS International.