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Injured Workers Are at an Increased Risk of Death Due to Suicide or Drug Overdose

by Stephanie Yanovich

Depression, drug overdoses, and suicide have increased dramatically over the past two decades – and injured workers are especially vulnerable to these public health crises. That’s the finding of a recent study published in The American Journal of Industrial Medicine, a peer reviewed medical journal focused on occupational and environmental health. The study, ‘Suicide and drug-related mortality following occupational injury,’ was sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and used extensive workers’ compensation data to determine that the missed pay, chronic pain, and long term opioid use that often occurs after a workplace injury creates a perfect storm of despair and addiction, thereby increasing the risk of premature death.

While suicide and fatal drug overdoses have risen overall in the U.S. since 2000, researchers conducting the NIOSH sponsored study discovered that men suffering from a work-related injury that caused lost time from the job were 29% more likely to succumb to a drug overdose than the general population, and were 72% more likely to die from suicide. The statistics for women who have sustained a lost time work-related injury are even more alarming – their risk of a drug associated death is nearly triple that of the general population, and they’re 92% more likely to commit suicide. These conclusions were reached after examination of New Mexico workers’ compensation data for over 100,000 workers injured from 1994-2000 in conjunction with Social Security Administration earnings, as well as mortality data from 2013 and cause of death data from the National Death Index.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the study is the possibility that the findings understate the connections between a work injury and premature death due to suicide and drug overdose. This is because death certificates in many states do not list multi-drug use as a cause of death, instead naming the effects of an overdose, such as cardiac arrest or respiratory distress, as the primary culprit. Suicide as a result of intentional drug ingestion is also underreported on death certificates, as cause of death coding does not always factor in toxicology results from medical examiners.  Meanwhile, injured workers are ingesting highly addictive opioids at a staggering rate – some studies have concluded that 42% of people with a back injury sustained at work were prescribed opioids within a year of their injury. But the lack of accurate cause of death data available to researchers means they may not have the ability to fully grasp the impact that such an elevated rate of prescription drug use has on those suffering from a work injury.

The data gathered by the recent NIOSH supported study confirms that injured workers are a significant casualty in the national emergency of drug overdoses and suicide. By providing support and resources to this demographic in the form of better working conditions, comprehensive pain management, mandated depression screening, and favorable workers’ compensation laws, premature deaths could be substantially reduced.

At Warnken, LLC, we knew the ramifications of serious work related injuries were far reaching.  However, not even we, as very experienced workers’ compensation attorneys, could have guessed this.  It’s unfortunate that more injured workers’ are not treated for the psychological conditions that so often accompany their physical injuries.  In Maryland workers’ compensation, it’s often referred to as physical – mental.  In essence, an injury that starts out as purely physical then also becomes “mental” for multiple reasons.  These reasons include, but aren’t limited to, lack of ability to work and earn a living, lack of physical activity because of the work injury, lack of social interaction because of the work injury, drug dependency because of the injury, and harassment by the workers’ compensation insurer.  This combination of factors can be tragic, as our experience and the cited study show.

If you have depression, the fear of possible depression, drug dependency, or any other psychological condition stemming from a work injury – tell your workers’ comp lawyer.  Be honest about it.  We’ve seen it all before.  Your vulnerability just may save your life.

[Injured Workers More Likely to Die from Suicide or Opioid Overdose, by Katie M. Applebaum, ScD; Abay Asfraw, PhD; Paul K. O’Leary, PhD; Andrew Busey, BS; Yorghos Tripodis, PhD; and Leslie I. Boden, PhD, NIOSH Science Blog, 8.Aug.19.]