Abuse of prescription painkillers is one of the top emerging threats to workplace safety and public health, National Safety Council CEO Janet Froetscher said Monday.
In a keynote address at the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo in Chicago, Froetscher pointed out that 45 people die from abuse of prescription pain medications everyday – more than heroin and cocaine combined.
"For the first time since World War 2, the No. 1 cause of unintentional fatalities isn't motor-vehicle crashes – it's driven by the overdose of prescription painkillers," Froetscher said.
The problem is creeping into workplaces, Froetscher added. She noted that painkiller abuse accounts for 10 percent of workers' compensation costs.
"You may not think you're seeing it in the workplace, but you are," she said. "And we're going to continue to see it more in the future."
Abuse of prescription painkillers is just one of a number of emerging issues that EHS professionals will have to confront in the coming years, Froetscher said. The National Safety Council highlights these challenges in its latest safety agenda, unveiled Monday during the event in Chicago.
One major safety and health challenge stems from the changing face and shifting dynamics of the modern work force.
"With downsizing and mergers, we all have to do more with less," Froetscher explained. "That leads to longer hours, faster pace of work, stress and fatigue."
At the same time, employers are becoming increasingly more reliant on contractors and temporary workers, who "tend to work in riskier jobs with inadequate PPE and inadequate training," Froetscher said.
Compounding the challenge is the trend toward telecommuting and working remotely.
"Sometimes we're not working with our colleagues. Sometimes we're not working with our supervisors. Sometimes we may not even be working with each other," Froetscher explained. "So how do we think about keeping people safe when some of our employees are by themselves all the time?"
The National Safety Council's safety agenda notes that these and other emerging workplace risks "are brought on by changes in the economy, how businesses are organized and demographic changes in American society."
Other emerging risks include:
- Ergonomic injuries – These account for approximately 30 percent of all work-related injuries in the United States, according to the National Safety Council.
- Literacy – "With nearly a quarter of adults having minimal reading skills, thousands of workers are missing important safety messages every day," the National Safety Council points out.
- Younger and older workers – People are living longer, and they're working longer for economic reasons. At the same time, the so-called Millennial generation is entering the work force, and is exposed to higher rates of injury in some industries.
- Cultural challenges – More Spanish-speaking workers, "particularly in some high-risk industries, have contributed to increased fatalities of workers and exposure to risks that may not be well understood due to language and cultural barriers," the NSC's safety agenda explains.
"Although we've been able to [lower] fatalities for a number of other populations, it's been the opposite with the Hispanic population in our work force," Froetscher said. "We need to understand that and get in front of it."