Several incidents in which law enforcement officers suddenly experienced health problems after being exposed to opioids and other drugs while on the job sent up an alarm among first responders nationwide. With the opioid epidemic in the U.S. showing few signs of abating, agencies turned to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for help in preventing such exposures going forward.

The agencies requested the assistance through the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation Program, which provides free workplace evaluations.

Officers required medical attention

The first incident occurred in 2017 when white powder fell onto an officer during a traffic stop in New Hampshire. In the second incident, in 2018, four officers developed symptoms while responding to a call about a possible drug overdose in Virginia. All five officers reported nonspecific symptoms that required medical attention and temporarily prevented them from working, but the symptoms were not consistent with severe or life-threatening opioid toxicity.

The recommendations

NIOSH investigators interviewed the officers and others, and reviewed medical records, incident reports, laboratory results, and body camera footage if available. They found that both incidents involved several types of drugs: opioids, such as fentanyl, and stimulants, including cocaine and methamphetamine. Although the routes of exposure were not well characterized, the investigators were able to make recommendations to prevent such incidents:

  1. Develop policies to prevent exposure on topics such as on-scene risk assessment, standard safe operating procedures and work practices, personal protective equipment, and decontamination.
  2. Provide education and training to officers.

Details about the need for policies and procedures, as well as education and training about exposure prevention are in a report published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicineexternal icon.

NIOSH says additional research, including surveillance, is needed to inform future recommendations to protect officers.

More information is available: