Our Conferences are Canceled – Now What? (Part 2)

Factory worker experiencing back pain

Ohio has the second-highest rate of opioid deaths in the U.S with 39.2 opioid-involved overdose deaths/100,000 persons (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

“MSDs & Opioids: Impact of Musculoskeletal Disorders on the Opioid Epidemic” was just one of the many sessions canceled when The Ohio Safety Congress & Expo, March 11-13, 2020, was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, all U.S.-based conferences, across all industries, have also been canceled, rescheduled for the fall, or gone virtual. That’s a whole lot of knowledge not being shared, and while it makes sense to turn off the world for a month (or two) to control the virus, other epidemics aren’t playing nice and taking the back seat. They’re raging more than ever.

Unemployment rates are up, as are credit card debt, depression, divorce, and suicide. Combine these factors with the mental exhaustion of being confined to your home, and it’s no surprise that alcoholism and drug use have also skyrocketed. As the Senior Events Manager at VelocityEHS, I hope to give you some knowledge back. During the next few months, I’ll be summarizing sessions that VelocityEHS experts or clients would have presented.

Director of Ergonomics Research and Ergonomics Engineer Blake McGowan was scheduled to share insight into the connection between opioid abuse and workplace ergonomics at the Ohio conference. In fact, he began researching the topic early last year and published the findings in the EHS Today article, “The Devastating Consequences of Ignoring Workplace Ergonomics.”

If you’re at your computer, do this:

  • Search for drug abuse and depression in your browser. A plethora of research studies citing the connection popped up, right? I bet you didn’t really search those terms because you’re already aware.
  • Search for drug abuse and workplace ergonomics. Fewer results appear, but the evidence is making its way to the surface and McGowan’s article tops the list.

 Opioid Abuse Statistics – Connecting the Dots

More than 47,000 people die annually from opioid overdoses in the U.S. This is equivalent to roughly 130 deaths per day, close to five per hour, or one every 12 minutes. In just under 20 years, opioid overdose rates have increased almost 500%. The CDC estimates the financial burden to be about $78.5 billion a year. This is equivalent to nearly $215 million per day, $9 million per hour, or $150,000 per minute in the U.S., says McGowan. Fifty-seven percent of those who died from opioid-related deaths had at least one prior workplace musculoskeletal disorder according to researchers in Utah.

Overexertion tasks (lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying) are the number-one cause of non-fatal workplace injuries in the U.S. and account for 23% of all non-fatal workplace injuries. The direct costs are $13.79 billion per year, or approximately $250 million per week (2017 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index). Low back pain has continued to curse more global disability than any other condition (Global Burden of Disease).

It seems appropriate to hypothesize that the more workplace injuries, the more painkiller prescriptions are written, and the faster people return to work to repeat the same tasks that got them injured in the first place; dovetailing the cycle all over again.
This steep climb in addiction rates and death rates caught the attention of the Center for Disease Control. To combat the crisis, they suggest:

  • Providing each U.S. state with prevention strategies
  • Improving data quality and tracking trends
  • Supporting health care providers and health systems
  • Partnering with public safety officials and law enforcement
  • Encouraging consumers to make safe choices

These suggestions are good ones, but they don’t fix the underlying problem: preventing the injury from occurring in the first place. It sounds simple: eliminating the injury removes the opioid prescription from the hand of a potential addicted user. But, it’s not easy for organizations with hundreds, if not thousands of high-risk jobs to fix. When ergonomics risk assessments are completed, jobs are scored as either high, medium, or low risk. This data brings visibility to the jobs that pose the greatest injury risk to workers.

The Ergonomics Approach to Opioid Abuse

Workplace musculoskeletal disorder injuries, which are disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, or spinal discs, have recently been identified as a key factor in opioid-related overdoses. These injuries occur when ergonomics is not practiced at all or if the workplace is poorly designed. To prevent an injury, risk factors must be removed or “designed out.”

Companies with comprehensive ergonomics processes generally have higher human capital management and stronger environmental, social, and governance practices. They invest in their people, they treat their people as well as, if not better than, their equipment,” says McGowan.

These companies provide:

    • A lot of employee training, which improves employee engagement and facilitates a participatory ergonomics approach to drive down injuries and improve business performance
    • A management system to identify and track risk, which ensures a process that is standardized and sustainable
    • Oversight for the process, which ensures senior management is involved
    • A tracking tool to publish lost-time injuries and bring visibility to the program

Ergonomics is about optimizing human performance and overall system performance. “It’s about implementing a continuous process aimed at what people are good at and designing against what they are not good at,” says McGowan. Understanding human performance capabilities will not only allow us to optimize employee performance, but it will also keep employees out of the doctor’s office and prescription-free.

The history of the opioid epidemic:

  • 1804 – Morphine was discovered and by the mid-1800s, civil war soldiers, the middle class, and middle-aged housewives were high users.
  • Late-1800s – Bayer Corporation introduced heroin as a safer alternative to morphine. Addiction rates increased in the young, urban dwellers, and Caucasians.
  • Mid-1970s – This era saw a rise in illicitly manufactured heroin, with heavy users being inner-city dwellers, non-Caucasians, and African Americans. According to a Pentagon study, by 1973 up to 20% of Vietnam soldiers were habitual heroin users.
  • 1990s to 2013 – Opioid prescriptions increased. Heroin overdose deaths increased. Synthetic opioid overdose deaths increased.

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