Employers Are Stymied by Worker Overdoses

Chriss Swaney

Sarasota, FL (WorkercCompensation.com) – For the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash, according to National Safety Council (NSC) calculations. In fact, workplace overdose deaths involving drugs and alcohol have increased at least 25 percent for five consecutive years.

Tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year from overdoses. It’s a grim trend that has touched about every aspect of life and confirmed by a new report released today from an NSC survey that found 75 percent of U.S. employers have been directly affected by opioids, but only 17 percent feel extremely well prepared to deal with the issue.

The survey reports that 38 percent have experienced absenteeism or impaired worker performance, and 31 percent have had an overdose, arrest, a near-miss or an injury because of employee opioid use. And only half of employers surveyed are very confident that they have the appropriate HR policies and resources to deal with opioid use and misuse in the workplace.

The NSC survey went on to report that 79 percent of the employers surveyed are not very confident that individual employees can spot warning signs of opioid misuse.

“The opioid crisis is truly encompassing nearly every aspect of American lives. Today’s survey confirms that the No. 1 cause of preventable death is not just taking its toll in our home lives, but companies across the country are also grappling with the impact of this epidemic,” said Nick Smith, interim president and CEO of the NSC.

Other key findings from the survey found that employers are more concerned about hiring qualified workers, employee benefit costs and workers’ compensation costs than they are about employee use of legal prescription opioids or illicit use/sale of opioids. However, opioid misuse – legal or illicit –can impact all other issues employers cited as more concerning.

Eighty-six percent of employers believe taking opioids even as prescribed can impair job performance, yet only 60 percent have policies in place requiring employees to notify their employer when they are using a prescription opioid, according to the new NSC survey.

Rachael Cooper, senior program manager for substance use and harm prevention at the NSC, said the NSC is committed to working with employers to define best practices. “About 95 percent of people impacted by the opioid crisis range in age from 18 to 65,” said Cooper.

Cooper is quick to add that jobs with little or no sick-leave like the construction industry can contribute to overuse of pain medication so injured workers go back to work before they really should be engaged in work again.

So how can the workplace be made safer?

Diane Kondas, director of the Daniel J. Wukich School of Nursing at Seton Hill University, said making a work environment safer with a reduction in physical injury risk would reduce the overall use of potentially addicting pain medications. “If employers utilize good work policies and work safety plans and equipment, injuries could be reduced and a decrease in opioid prescriptions may be the result,” said Kondas.

Kondas also pointed out that many states, medical and nursing associations are revising recommendations for use of opioids for short-term injuries so that overall opioid prescriptions are reduced, reducing the rise in unintentional overdoses and drug abuse.

“There does seem to be some evidence that opioid prescriptions for workplace injuries through workers’ compensation has been studied as a potential origin of some opioid addictions. OSHA is working on reducing the use of opioids for workers’ compensation cases,” said Kondas.

The NSC provides a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers manage opioid use at work. Based on additional survey results, the NSC intends to add components to the kit, including a robust workplace policy.

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