Opioid Addiction at Work Major Challenge for Employers

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By Genevieve Douglas

The U.S. opioid addiction crisis is hitting the workplace hard, and employers should be ready to address it, practitioners say.

Some 4.3 million people say they’re using prescription painkillers non-medically, and drug overdose is the leading cause of “injury death” in the U.S., attorney James Reidy notes, citing Department of Health and Human Services data. That’s ahead of motor vehicles or firearms, the management-side labor and employment attorney in the Manchester, N.H., office of Sheehan Phinney said.

Widespread opioid abuse costs employers approximately $12 billion annually, with roughly 10 percent to 12 percent of American workers under the influence of drugs at work, Reidy said. In some industries such as construction, trucking or manufacturing, the numbers are even higher, he said March 13 at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Legal & Legislative Conference in Washington.

Testing for opioid and opiate abuse is complicated, Dr. Todd Simo, chief medical officer for employment background check provider HireRight, told Bloomberg BNA March 13. While the average drug test does include some opiate and opioid screening, the focus is on illegal substances, Simo said. Many employers don’t test for oxycodone, fentanyl or Demerol, he said.

“Workplace programs are designed around deterrents, and not specifically detection,” Simo said. The purpose is to deter people from using illegal drugs, but it’s much more difficult to deter employees from using legal substances, he added.

Detecting Abuse in the Workplace

“The problem with opioids—especially when compared to marijuana or alcohol—is that users are well hidden in the workplace,” Reidy said. But even if the drug use isn’t obvious, the impact on the workplace persists, he said.

HR professionals should look for various signs of abuse, he says, including:

  •  excessive time off--being absent, arriving late or leaving early;
  •  decreased productivity; and
  •  increased workplace accidents.
Opioid addiction can also show up in higher compensation costs and health insurance premiums, and it can lead to increased employee turnover, Reidy said.

In terms of testing, screening for synthetic opioids isn’t as widespread as it should be, and employers often don’t have policies that deal with prescription drugs specifically, Reidy said. “It’s a major health and safety issue,” he said.

Employers may want to consider opioid-specific policies that include working with local police and EMTs on opioid response and providing access to NARCAN, a medicine to counter the effects of opioids, and other overdose response equipment or medications, Reidy said.

A Comprehensive Approach

If an employer has reasonable suspicion that a person is impaired at work or showing signs of drug abuse, there are several ways to address it, Simo said. In addition to ordering a drug screen, employers should have a physician do a medical evaluation, he said. This can be helpful because a lot of people who look profoundly impaired could actually be having a life-threatening event, Simo said. These evaluations can also reveal whether there’s an addiction involved, he added.

Employers should have policies that allow for a recurrent drug testing program, and a for-cause testing program, Simo recommended. And an employer’s medical review officer should communicate with HR about findings and safety concerns and take action as appropriate, he said.

An organization’s employee assistance program is also a good resource for workers with substance abuse problems. EAPs are important in getting employees the help they need and also help employers hold on to top employees with addictions. Recruitment and hiring costs can sometimes be even more expensive than rehabilitation, Simo said.

With regard to opioid abuse, he added, each policy should cater to the unique needs of the workplace.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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