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Prescription medications contribute to favorable treatment outcomes and quality of life when used correctly. However, the abuse of opioid painkillers has become a disturbing trend and a threat to workplace safety, according to a National Safety Council (NSC) report.
The number of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet shot up from 76 million in 1991 to 213 million in 2013, a 176 percent increase, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2010, almost half of drug overdose fatalities in the U.S., 16,651 deaths, were tied to prescription medications, exceeding the overdose deaths from both heroin and cocaine combined.
The prescription painkiller epidemic poses a unique challenge for employers. “These medications are powerful, highly addictive drugs that have the potential to cause impairment [and] increase the risk of workplace incidents, errors and injury even when taken as prescribed,” said Dr. Don Teater, medical advisor for the NSC, in the report.
Prescription painkillers also profoundly increase workers’ compensation costs, length of worker disability and work time lost, according to the Workers Compensation Research Institute.
Quest Diagnostics, which provides drug testing services, said in 2010 that workers who had been in accidents tested positive for the narcotic opioid hydrocodone nearly five times more often than the general population of workers. Positive tests for hydrocodone and oxycodone have risen 172 percent and 71 percent, respectively, since 2005, according to Quest’s Drug Testing Index.
But there are legitimate checks on what employers can do in this area, such as legal concerns about privacy, protection of personal medical information and possible violations of the confidential doctor-patient relationship.
So what can you do about this growing problem?
“Most employers understand how detrimental illegal drugs can be in the workplace, but few recognize the toll of the prescription painkiller epidemic,” said Deborah Hersman, NSC president and CEO in a press release. “Strong drug-free workplace programs, comprehensive benefits packages, easily accessible employee assistance programs and companywide education are risk reduction efforts every employer must undertake to help protect the health and well-being of their employees as well as company bottom lines.”
Employers have the legal right to provide a drug-free workplace, including drug testing, in order to establish that job tasks are performed in a safe and effective manner, according to the NSC.
Here are six steps employers can take to maintain a safe work environment:
Re-evaluate your company’s drug policy. Drug-free workplace policies were more easily enforced when illegal drugs were the only drugs banned under the policy, Teater said. “Now, the increased use of prescription medicines, especially opioid painkillers, has created an important need to revisit these policies.” The NSC says this should be overseen by the HR and safety departments and legal counsel. “A clear, written policy has never been more important,” Teater said. “Unlike blood-alcohol levels, proving an objective measure of unsafe impairment is difficult. The involvement of legal counsel in tandem with human resources and employee relations is critical to ensure the policy includes protections for risk management, injury prevention and liability.”
Educate employees about the dangers of prescription painkiller use and misuse. According to the NSC, employees should know:
Train supervisorsso they can act as your company’s first line of defense. Supervisors should know:
Promote your employee assistance program. Seventy percent of all U.S. companies and 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies purchase employee assistance programs (EAPs) because research shows that EAPs have positive returns on investment, according to the NSC. “It is in an employer’s best interest to identify opioid abuse and to support confidential access to treatment. Employer-sponsored treatment is a cost-effective solution,” Teater said.
But few employees use EAPs, he added. “Many employees don’t understand the value or may fear negative ramifications if they seek help. Employee education on the company’s EAP services needs to clearly state who an employee may talk to, how they can communicate with that resource and where.”
Include prescription medications in your drug-testing program. Drug tests can be perceived as being highly intrusive, but they can be invaluable tools for preventing drug-related incidents and reducing risk, according to the NSC. Workplace drug-testing programs can curb drug abuse through the apprehension of getting caught and the possibility of the consequences.
“The structure of the drug-testing program largely determines its effectiveness,” Teater said. Some programs require mandatory testing for all employees, some test only after an incident and some only test at the pre-employment stage.
Before performing any drug test or adopting a drug-testing policy, employers should obtain expert legal advice that is current with both state laws and federal guidelines, the NSC advised.
Additional advice regarding drug testing:
Partner with your health care and workers’ compensation insurance providers.
Working closely with these important partners helps employers understand the extent of opioid use and the need for programs to prevent and manage opioid abuse, the NSC said.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him @SHRMRoy
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