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Workers’ compensation claims explode in volume as exposure to smoke from drugs increases for bus drivers in Washington State.
By Lonce Lamonte - November 7, 2023

Workers’ compensation claims connected to smoke inhalation from illicit drugs has reached a five-year high in Washington State for bus drivers.  As one bus operator expressed, the doors open and passengers come on the bus with the foil and the straw in their mouths getting high. She sees drug use on Metro buses often and especially at bus stops.

The operator said that she and other drivers sit and breathe the substances every day all day.  In her five-and-a-half years as a bus driver, she said people smoking meth and fentanyl on her bus have left her traumatized.  She used Narcan to revive people who had overdosed three times in a single month. She’s not a first responder, but she feels like one, she said, when she gets behind the wheel of her bus.  

On her route, she said that one day she passed out. So, it’s not just passengers who are passing out. When it happened to her, she woke up to a passenger waking her up from behind the wheel and telling her that she had passed out.  

A University of Washington study of trains and public buses found fentanyl in 25% of air samples and almost 50% of surface samples.  Methamphetamine was found in nearly 100% of air and surface samples.

One passenger said he-she won’t let his kid ride the bus because people are seen smoking meth or other substances every day.

Marissa Baker, who is a University of Washington researcher and who worked on a study, said they don’t have the data to know what a lifetime of exposure looks like for someone who is operating a train or bus 10 hours a day.  The one operator said that it is the lack of knowledge that is scary.  Two weeks after being exposed to second-hand smoke, she ended up in the hospital.  She thought she’d had a stroke.

She was admitted to the hospital for numbness and weakness in her left side.  She expressed the biggest problem is the unknown for her.  “Is it fentanyl?  Is it a heart condition?  Is it a cervical condition in her neck?”  It’s the unknown for her, and it’s very frustrating for her because she has to provide for herself and get up to go to work.

The doctors can’t say if it was drug exposure that caused her symptoms.  So, she has not filed a workers’ compensation claim.  But many of her colleagues have.

State records show that in the last five years workers’ compensation claims for second-hand smoke exposure to illicit drugs has increased dramatically by more than 800%.  The vast majority of claimants were bus drivers but some were janitors and social service workers.

From the workers who said they’d gotten sick from exposure to drugs, about 40% had their claims accepted.  For the rest they mostly couldn’t prove it.

The Director of Public Health for Seattle and King County, a Dr. Faisal Khan, said the risk was minimal to both the riders and operators.  Dr. Khan spoke in a joint news conference in September with King County Metro and other agencies where they minimized the risk.  In their study, the University of Washington researchers made cleaning recommendations.

Researcher Marissa Baker of the University of Washington said, “Because we do not know, we should be trying to control these exposures to a low level; we should be doing everything we can to keep the operators safe and not exposed.”  

In response, King County Metro, Sound Transit, and three other agencies are adding better air filtration systems, increasing security, and implementing deep cleaning protocols.  

But the operator who said she breathes the substances every day said it’s not enough.  She has to think about how she’s doing to protect herself at work.  “It’s the way of the world,” she said, “I’ve got to work.”, Lonce Lamonte, journalist



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