Occupational Exposures to Fentanyl
Following a drug arrest this past May, an Ohio police officer accidentally overdosed on fentanyl, a powerful opioid that various sources describe as 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The officer wiped a small amount of fentanyl powder off his uniform, absorbing the drug through his skin. He survived after treatment with an overdose reversal drug.
This incident illustrates the acute dangers facing several occupational groups that come into contact with fentanyl and other opioids during their work. In addition to police officers, these workers include individuals who handle evidence, emergency medical service providers, firefighters, members of hazmat teams, healthcare personnel who attend to overdose patients, and others. Neither OSHA nor ACGIH has established occupational exposure limits for fentanyl.
Fentanyl is legally prescribed as a pain reliever, typically to patients with advanced cancer. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is often mixed with heroin or cocaine, sometimes without the user’s knowledge, to increase the drug’s effect. A 2016 report from the Drug Enforcement Agency identified prescription drugs, heroin, and fentanyl as the most significant drug-related threats in the U.S. Additional information about fentanyl and its analogues appears below.

From “Fentanyl: Preventing Occupational Exposure to Emergency Responders”:
“At a minimum, NIOSH recommends the use of a P-100 half-mask filtering facepiece respirator (or higher), gloves, eye protection, and protective clothing to protect against possible fentanyl exposure. In the event of a large spill or release of fentanyl, NIOSH recommends that law enforcement vacate the area and call a hazardous materials incident response team for support.”

Associated Press: “
Officer Overdoses from Powder on Shirt after Drug Arrest
” (May 2017).
CDC: PBSS Issue Brief, “Increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone linked to increase in supply of fentanyl in PBSS states” (
, July 2017).
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
: “
Fentanyl Law Enforcement Submissions and Increases in Synthetic Opioid–Involved Overdose Deaths—27 States, 2013–2014
” (August 2016).
Fentanyl: Incapacitating Agent
Fentanyl: Preventing Occupational Exposure to Emergency Responders

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In August, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that a student intern and a researcher at Oak Ridge Associated Universities had devised an experiment to replicate the McCluskey incident in order to study the effects of radiation on the body. By irradiating vials of their own blood for different lengths of time, the researchers hope to generate data that clinicians and first responders can refer to following an exposure incident.

Read more from the News Sentinel.