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Opioids and Work: A Critical Connection

Experts Say Work Can Lead to Addiction – or Help Recovery

The National Institute of Environmental Safety and Health selected The New England Consortium at UMass Lowell as a pilot site for a new training on opioids in the workplace Photo by Neil Hawley
The New England Consortium at UMass Lowell was selected as one of four sites nationwide to pilot a training program on opioids in the workplace.

08/07/2019
By Katharine Webster

Workplace conditions can contribute to or help prevent opioid addiction – and employers and unions can play a vital role in supporting people in recovery, experts told community members at a regional forum held at the university.

Three-quarters of people using opioids are working, and many become addicted because of job-related injuries and stress, said Joseph Hughes, head of the worker education and training branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

“When most people think of opioid addiction, they think of someone who is hungry and homeless, living under an overpass – but that’s only the end of a long chain of addiction that starts at home for breadwinners with families,” Hughes told researchers and representatives of industry, labor unions and nonprofits from around New England. 

“How to break that chain is the challenge we face today. The hope is that our training with UMass Lowell and others can start this conversation about addiction and mental health in the workplace,” he said.
Joseph Hughes, chief of the worker education and training branch of NIESH, speaks at UMass Lowell Photo by Neil Hawley
Joseph Hughes, chief of NIESH's worker education and training branch, spoke at the community meeting.

The community meeting and an intensive training workshop that followed it represent the beginning of a government effort to tackle the opioid crisis in the context of worker health and workplace safety. Both events were hosted by The New England Consortium, a worker health and safety training center in the university’s College of Health Sciences that is funded by grants from the federal agency.  

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 all encouraged participants to use the university as a resource for research and training. 

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

Hughes cited groundbreaking research at the university and in Massachusetts as the reason UMass Lowell was selected as one of four sites nationwide to pilot NIEHS’s new six-hour training on how to prevent and respond to opioid addiction in the workplace. Several of The New England Consortium’s trainers participated so that they can offer the training to employers and labor unions around New England.

The research Hughes cited includes Public Health Asst. Prof. Angela Wangari Walter’s work assessing opioid use disorders and barriers to treatment among fishing industry workers in New England.
Asst. Prof. of Public Health Angela Wangari-Walter spoke at a community stakeholders forum on opioid use disorders in the workplace Photo by Neil Hawley
Public Health Asst. Prof. Angela Wangari Walter spoke about her research into opioid use disorder among fishing industry workers.

It also includes two other major studies in Massachusetts. One looked at which industries have the highest rates of addiction. The other looked at the correlation between workplace injuries and suicide, whether by overdose or other means. A key finding: Construction workers in Massachusetts are six times more likely to die of an overdose than the average worker. 

Many workers who have physically demanding jobs, including nurses and construction workers, become addicted after they are prescribed opioids for pain relief, said Jonathan Rosen, who helped develop the training and led it.

“Occupational stress and injuries can lead to addiction,” he said. 

On the other hand, he said, the workplace and labor unions can provide vital support and motivation to help workers in recovery. Good jobs provide not only a paycheck, but also stability, structure, a sense of purpose and identity, and social support for people struggling with opioid use disorder and mental health issues.

“One of the worst things you can do to a person struggling with addiction is to fire them,” Rosen said.
UMass Lowell College of Health Sciences Dean Shortie McKinnie and Economics Research Prof. David Turcotte at a community stakeholders meeting on opioids and the workplace Photo by Neil Hawley
College of Health Sciences Dean Shortie McKinney invited employers, unions and nonprofits to use the university as a resource for research and training. With Economics Research Prof. David Turcotte.

In the training, Rosen urged employers to take steps to improve worker safety. He also urged participants to use a peer support model to help workers. Some unions in Massachusetts are already doing that, with help from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH)

U.S. Ironworkers Local 7, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Teamsters Local 25 all created programs to assist their members, said MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. Physical injuries and job-related stress are major problems in all three industries, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution because every profession faces different work conditions, she said. 

In most professions, though, the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues is a major barrier to seeking help, and that only increases when employees also face a zero-tolerance policy at work and a realistic fear that they will lose their jobs, Sugerman-Brozan said. 

“A key message is that we should work hard to reduce the stigma for seeking treatment,” she said. “We need higher-level policy changes as well.”