When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was formed in 1970, its role was to ensure employers provided a safe and healthy workplace for their employees.

Back then, the assumption was that OSHA's role focused on the physical aspects of safety—that proper equipment was used and workplace standards were followed.

OSHA's role has expanded to include protecting workers' mental health in addition to their physical health, and helping employers deal with issues like the opioid crisis.

"OSHA might not be the first federal agency you think of when you hear of non-traditional hazards such as post-traumatic stress disorder, drug use, suicide, and other mental health issues, but it is part of our mission to prevent workplace injuries, illness, and deaths," said Timothy Irving, assistant regional administrator for cooperative and state programs for OSHA's New England region.

"We do this with a three-pronged approach: Strong, fair, effective enforcement, setting clear standards, and providing compliance assistance to help employers understand their responsibilities."

When OSHA began 49 years ago, there were around 14,000 annual workplace fatalities in the U.S.

The number has fallen dramatically to around 5,000 annual workplace fatalities, but even one is too many, Irving said.

PTSD, Substance Abuse

Among the issues employers face these days include employees who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or have substance-abuse issues.

PTSD victims can include workers who experience or witness a traumatic situation, such as police officers, EMTs, security guards, or corrections officers, Irving said.

"Too often, PTSD goes undetected," he said.

OSHA helps employers navigate these situations through its critical stress incident guide.

"The opioid epidemic and unintentional overdoses have also been an increasing problem," Irving said.

There were 272 workplace deaths from unintentional drug overdoses in 2017.

The number of unintentional overdoses due to non-medical use of drugs or alcohol while at work rose by 25%, he said.

"This is the fifth-consecutive year that this number has risen by 25%," Irving said.

The federal Bureau of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 272 workplace deaths from unintentional overdoses in 2017, the latest year for which figures were available.

By contrast, the number of unintentional workplace fatal overdoses was 217 in 2016, 165 in 2015, 114 in 2014, and 82 in 2013.

The National Safety Council prepared an employers' toolkit to address opioids in the workplace.

Suicide Prevention

OSHA's expanded role includes suicide prevention.

Of the roughly 45,000 Americans who committed suicide in 2016, 275 died in the workplace, Irving said.

"Whether at a facility or outside the workplace, the suicide death of a worker, friend, or family member of a worker has enormous impact on an operation, not to mention the community," he said.

Unintentional workplace overdoses and death by suicide account for 10% of all occupational workplace fatalities.

"We must look beyond norms and conditions outside the workplace" to understand what factors—including mental health and substance abuse—may influence certain actions in the workplace, Irving said.

For more information, contact CBIA's Phillip Montgomery (860.244.1982).