The opioid epidemic has been described as the deadliest drug crisis in American history as each year more people overdoses on these prescription painkillers than on heroin and cocaine combined. Their deaths exceed car crashes as the leading cause of unintentional death. The addiction crosses all social, economic, and racial boundaries and – inevitably – seeps into the workplace. Twenty-three percent of the workforce has misused prescription painkillers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While some begin opioid abuse to ease the pain from injuries sustained while performing job duties, others’ addiction is the result of incidents that occur outside of the workplace. They are a chief concern for employers. 

There are serious risks associated with impairment from opioid abuse. In the workplace, these risks become a shared problem that can affect not just the employee but other co-workers, as well as quality control and overall production. Some of the painkillers’ side effects include: rapidly developing addiction, withdrawal, permanent changes to brain chemistry, nausea, respiratory depression, increased sensitivity to pain, and driving impairment – the last being particularly relevant to those who operate vehicles as their primary duty. The impact on brain chemistry alone is especially alarming as job capability and performance are at stake. An increase in workplace incidents, errors, and injuries are likely to occur.

Companies incur significant financial and legal risks. Reliance on the drugs leads to an increased use of ER services, hospitalizations, related medical costs, and significantly more workers’ compensation claims. The cost per claim as a result of opioid abuse continues to grow, as well as the number of painkillers per claim. The National Safety Council cites The Hopkins-Accident Research Fund Study in 2012 for finding that workers prescribed even one opioid had average total claim costs more than three times greater than claimants with similar claims who didn’t get opioids. 

It is the responsibility of employers to address the prevalence of these drugs in an effort to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. Effective Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which discourage drug abuse, are crucial to balancing legitimately prescribed users who are at work. These programs offer tools such as talking points for employers, and even plans that emphasize how employees can work with their prescribers to see if a non-opioid prescription is an option. . A well-constructed EAP program should articulate the following five elements, which Working Partners, a company that assists in creating these programs, lists as:

  • A Written Substance Abuse Policy
  • Employee Awareness and Education
  • Supervisor Training
  • An Employee Assistance Plan of Action
  • Drug and Alcohol Testing (as appropriate)

When implementing an EAP, you involve the support of experts that can guide your company through this process. By creating an open workplace environment in which employers address the issue of opioid abuse and its potential consequences, employees are more likely to be educated and, as a result, make informed decisions regarding their pain.