The tragedy of lives lost due to the opioid addiction crisis has touched virtually every community. The economic burden, estimated by the White House at $111 billion, strains the resources of agencies that are tasked with preventing and treating addiction. It also significantly strains the resources of our first responders that are saving overdose victims and our law enforcement agencies charged with confiscating and processing suspected illicit drug evidence. Employers are also impacted when workers’ on-the-job performance is altered from opioid use and addiction. But the harm to first responders, law enforcement and employers goes beyond strained financial and personnel resources. First responders and law enforcement officers have been accidentally exposed to opioids when treating overdoses or investigating illicit drug trafficking.

The risks of exposure

America’s drug problem isn’t confined to drug busts or medical emergencies; it’s also in our work places.

Opioids can enter the bodies of first responders and law enforcement when fine powders on packaging or victim’s clothing are inhaled, when skin contacts contaminated surfaces, when eyes are touched with contaminated fingers or gloves or when contaminated food and beverages are ingested. The fatal dose of fentanyl is estimated at 2 to 3 milligrams — the equivalent of several grains of salt — so even extremely small amounts can result in signs and symptoms of exposure. Some of the workers at risk of accidental exposure include EMTs, police, firefighters, hospital workers, crime lab analysts, funeral directors, customs and border protection agents, postal and package delivery workers, and volunteers who work with any of these professions.

The scope of the epidemic

America’s drug problem isn’t confined to drug busts or medical emergencies; it’s also in our work places. Workers using opioids, either therapeutically or illicitly, can affect their own personal safety and those with whom they work. Worker addiction may begin with an occupational injury that requires treatment with prescription opioids. Recognizing and managing both the potential for accidental exposure as well as the impact of the use of opioids in the workplace is essential to minimize the impact of the opioid crisis on workers.

It’s time to sound the alarm for America’s workers.

The importance of an action plan

Treating this society-wide epidemic, which claims 115 lives every day, requires a holistic approach that includes those responding to the crisis and those affected by the use of opioids in the workplace:

Identifying and sharing opioid exposure scenarios that describe how accidental exposures can occur and the methods of protection.

Developing and sharing specific, practical guidance and training to control the risk of exposure. This can include short videos and wallet-sized cards for easy reference in the field.

Ensuring that gloves, protective clothing, masks and opioid overdose reversal medications are always available and workers know how to use them.

Write to your legislators and sound the alarm for America’s workers.