A new unicorn – the creation of a work health and safety myth

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has many myths, as do many other business disciplines. This is particularly concerning in a discipline that advocates evidence-based decision-making and pushes for peer-reviewed independent research. Sometimes these myths relate to using gym balls as office chairs or back belts or “safe lifting techniques” to reduce manual handling risks or, and this is one of my own suspicions, ankle-high safety boots that reduce the risk of ankle injuries. There are also mixed messages about sit-stand desks. (Counterarguments welcome in the comments below)

The United States seems to be in the early stages of an urban myth about police overdosing after accidental exposure to fentanyl, although this has been cooking since at least 2021. The nature of social media and the internet suggests that sometime soon, this accusation or experience will appear in Australia. Various USbased media have looked at this occupational hazard, with the latest being National Public Radio (NPR) on May 16, 2023.

The NPR report, Cops say they’re being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is ‘extremely low’, is a good example of the growth of a risk perception of a valid workplace fear. A widely shared video purports to show a Florida policewoman overdosing after having contact with powdered street fentanyl. If powdered fentanyl was the cause of Officer Courtney Bannick’s collapse, it is very concerning as it could present a risk to others. However, NPR and other media have struggled to uncover medical evidence to support the assertion made by police treating Officer Bannick that she was overdosing.

NPR’s Brian Mann said in the report that:

“NPR reached out to the Tavares, Fla., Police Department and Officer Bannick, asking for toxicology reports or other information confirming she was affected by fentanyl. They declined to make that medical information public. We contacted numerous other law enforcement and government agencies and researchers around the country and couldn’t find a single case of a police officer who overdosed on fentanyl confirmed by toxicology reports. A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NPR the agency does believe a small number of first responders nationwide have experienced real symptoms after encountering fentanyl on the job. None of those cases involved overdoses. None were life-threatening.”

The lack of evidence to verify the assertion does not mean that the risk is impossible but it is highly unlikely.

One important element of the article is the suggestion of an alternative cause of police collapses:

“Del Pozo, the former police chief, believes the most serious risk to police officers isn’t accidental overdose. It’s anxiety and stress caused by misinformation about fentanyl.
DEL POZO: I mean, imagine you do a job every day where you just think, you know, being near a certain car or being near a certain person could kill you. It’s a real mental health problem for officers. The good fortune is that it’s just not necessary to have that fear.
MANN: Del Pozo says many reported fentanyl overdoses among police involved symptoms that look more like panic attacks than opioid overdoses.”

There also seems to be no evidence available to support or verify Del Pozos’ interpretation, but the suggestion of a “real mental health problem for officers” clearly brings this issue into the occupational health and safety domain.

Australia does not have the same potential risk from fentanyl exposure as it has different crises to the opioid situation in the United States, but it will have similar debates or online reports of potential damage to our emergency services “heroes” from occupational exposures to chemicals can substances. The challenge is to have good valid evidence readily available to counter some of the fear and panic, though Australia has limited research resources.

It also requires Australia to nuture its own occupational health and safety risk communicator. Kate Cole has performed this role marvellously in relation to silicosis exposure and ventilation protocols, but she cannot be everywhere and comment on areas outside of her expertise. Perhaps it is time to resurrect the lessons that Peter Sandman has provided as a risk and crisis communicator since, at least the 1990s. His Risk=Hazard+Outrage remains relevant but not as well-known as in the United States. For any public relations person who may have to deal with workplace crises or incidents, his information is invaluable.

The concept may also be useful to those OHS people who are struggling with the risk realities and the potential of OHS to reduce risk to be understood by their managers and executive. Remove the “outrage”, and risks and hazards are normalised as business-as-usual. “Outrage” could be replaced by the “passion” of the OHS person or even by “evidence”, if we were to flip Sandman’s equation into actions and perceptions, though he may be cross with me for corrupting his invention.

OHS needs fewer unchallenged assertions, fewer myths and an increased willingness to ask questions of the orthodoxy, questions perhaps like “Do well-being programs decrease mental health risks”?

Kevin Jones

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