New Study: Injured Workers at Risk for Suicide or Opioid Overdose

Serious workplace injuries are associated with increased risks of both suicide and death related to opioid overdose, according to a first-of-a-kind study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. The findings suggest that serious on-the-job injuries may be one factor that explains the uptick in suicides and overdose deaths nationally.

“This study suggests that serious work-related injuries may contribute to the alarming rise in deaths from both opioid overdoses and suicide,” said lead author Kate M. Applebaum, ScD, MSPH, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH). “We must continue to advance research to better understand the relationships between workplace injury, opioids and mortality. In addition, better treatment of the pain, substance use disorders and depression that often go along with workplace injuries may reduce this mortality risk.”

Applebaum and her colleagues studied more than 100,000 workers in New Mexico from 1994 through 2000, including 36,034 who had suffered an occupational injury serious enough to require a week off from work. The researchers looked at a combination of data on worker compensation injuries, Social Security earnings and mortality data, and cause of death from the National Center for Health Statistics. Workers were followed post-injury for up to 20 years in order to study long-term mortality trends.

The study found that these serious workplace injuries nearly tripled the risk of suicide and overdose death for women and raised the risk by about 50 percent for men.

Drug overdoses and suicides have been rising in the United States for about a decade. Many experts blame the opioid crisis for these so-called “deaths of despair,” but this is the first study to link these deaths to workers who had serious job injuries.

Previous studies have linked serious workplace injuries to both depression, which can trigger a suicide attempt, and the use of opioid painkillers, Applebaum said. The new findings raise the possibility that better access to mental health care and improved treatment of pain could reduce long-term mortality for workers who are out of work for more than a week, she adds.

The multi-institutional study was co-authored by researchers at Boston University, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Social Security Administration. This research was supported by funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, “Suicide and drug-related mortality following occupational injury,” was published July 12 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.