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Knowledge Center Items Confronting the Opioid Epidemic in the Workplace

Confronting the Opioid Epidemic in the Workplace

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President Trump recently declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and said the U.S. must confront "the worst drug crisis in American history.” He directed federal agencies to use all their resources to fight the drug crisis, including focusing on providing improved treatment for addicts. As many as 50,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016, and a recent study showed two million Americans had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers, while drug overdose is now the leading cause of death of Americans under the age of 50.

Society as a whole is feeling the effects of this epidemic – from the addicts themselves to the families that are being torn apart and the labor force. Studies in fact have found that approximately 60% of adults with substance dependence are employed full-time.

Opioids make up a broad group of drugs including the regularly prescribed painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl. They interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to create a pleasurable experience and relieve pain. Because of the relief they provide, consumers of these drugs often become dependent. Once addicted, individuals may turn to heroin, which, although illegal, is often a cheaper and more accessible opioid. In fact, nearly 23% of opioid users will eventually become addicted to heroin, and approximately four in five heroin addicts developed their addiction after taking prescription painkillers.

The Effect of Opioids on the Workplace

Employees are often prescribed opioids to relieve pain following a workplace injury. A study released this year by the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), which looked at claims filed for injuries occurring between October 1, 2012 and September 30, 2013, with prescriptions filled through the end of March 2015, found that between 65 and 75% of injured workers with pain medications received opioids in most of the 26 studied states.

In many of these cases, opioid use could begin a path to dependency. Furthermore, regardless of how an employee begins the abuse cycle, use of these drugs could have a dramatic impact on the individual’s performance. Opioid dependency often leads to drowsiness, shifting moods, anxiety, and depression. An employee with an opioid addiction may struggle to maintain regular attendance or achieve quality goals and could pose a safety hazard to themselves and coworkers. Additionally, addiction usually causes financial issues because the addict is in constant search for a fix, which could lead to workplace theft or embezzlement.

What can employers do to help combat the opioid crisis and keep employees and the workplace safe? A focus on education, prevention, and counseling may help minimize the impact of opioid use in the workplace. Employers should consider the following steps:

  • Educate employees on responsible prescription opioid use, the potency of these drugs, how they work and interact with other drugs, and how they can become addictive.
  • Understand risk factors of opioid abuse, which is vital to support preventive measures. Employees should learn about doctor shopping, physician dispensing and other risk factors supported by evidence.
  • Train supervisors to recognize signs of potential impairment and understand the company drug-testing policy. They should know that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act may protect an employee’s use of over-the-counter or prescription drugs to treat a disability.
  • Promote your employee assistance program (EAP). It’s in an employer’s best interest to promote confidential access to treatment. A full-service EAP will be able to assess the employee’s situation, recommend appropriate treatment and help find providers. Afterward, the EAP can monitor the employee’s progress by conducting periodic drug tests and ensuring that he or she is attending therapy and self-help groups.
  • Provide support and safe return to work to injured employees. If a worker is injured, it is important to provide strong social support from fellow workers, especially from an immediate supervisor and management, to help the worker safely return to work. 

RPS specializes in Workers Compensation insurance solutions and can assist you in finding the right program for your clients.

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