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Prescription drug addiction can lead to workplace accidents and safety issues. Photo: Pixabay.

When a Good Drug Goes Bad

“I’m going to prescribe a little something for your pain,” says the doctor following your workplace injury, your scheduled non- work-related surgery, or your nagging aching back that’s your fault because you abuse it. The prescription starts out with good intentions and with a purpose—to help manage your physical pain.  What transpires for some changes their lives forever—an addiction to pain killers or opioids like oxycodone, OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, hydrocodone, or fentanyl.

Law enforcement, substance abuse professionals, and employers would call what’s happening throughout the U.S. a pain killer epidemic.  Many addicts with no original intent do get hooked, and when drug prescriptions can’t be filled anymore, the addict turns to heroin.  Workplace productivity grinds to a halt, or worse yet–an injury occurs.

The National Safety Council reports that of all near-miss and injury incidents, across all industries, nearly 15% are the result of prescription drugs.
The National Safety Council reports that of all near-miss and injury incidents, across all industries, nearly 15% are the result of prescription drugs.  Because pain killers can be obtained legally there is no discrimination with its influence.  Well-educated workers like lawyers, CEOs, engineers, and even doctors can and do get addicted.

Upwards of 30% of all decreased job performance reports are the result of pain killers.  Early on an addict will remain mostly functional at work but noticeably more lethargic, sleepy, and disconnected, which is the effect of a narcotic in the system.  In Castlight Health’s April 2016 report, the estimated annual cost to employers of opioid abuse is $18 billion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the addiction increases exponentially with time.  An individual who used an opioid for just 1 day had a 6% chance of using opioids a year later; those using for 8 days or more had a 13.5% chance a year later; and when the initial prescription lasted 31 days or more, 30% were still taking them a year later.  The CDC estimates the total cost to the entire U.S. due to opioid abuse, including increased healthcare costs, at $78 billion!

Employment Practices to the Rescue

What can employers do?  Here are some ideas and recommendations.

  • Awareness—educate the workforce about the potential effects of a prescription drug. Although the employer can’t prohibit their use when prescribed legally, better awareness of the dangers allows the employee to discuss a pain management plan with their physician.
  • Substance Abuse Policy—review the employer substance abuse policy to make sure it’s compliant with state and federal laws. In particular, review the drug testing practices for pre-hire, random, for cause (reasonable suspicion), post-accident, and return to work policies.  Be sure to communicate the substance abuse policy with all employees and describe your expectations about reporting to work unimpaired every day.
  • Training—train employees on signs and symptoms of abuse. The goal is to prevent an injury and aid the user in getting the help they need.  In many instances training, such as reasonable suspicion for recognizing signs and symptoms of being under the influence, is necessary to ensure the workers’ rights are not being infringed upon.
  • Drug Testing—evaluate the types of drugs being analyzed in a drug screen test. Work with your third-party administrator or medical review officer to review the common types of drugs.  In some cases, the analysis will not identify all opioid pain killers.

Where would we be without drugs?  We are far better off with highly effective prescription medications in our lives.  Whether opioids are obtained legally or illegally, in time they can become very dangerous to those using them and those in their path.  If you believe you have an abuse problem with any type of substance, go talk to a family member, a social worker, or your employer’s human resource department.

Dan Hannan, safety professionalAbout the Author: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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