Arizona Healthcare Financial Management Association (AZHFMA)

America's opioid epidemic and the workplace: 3 lessons for employers

As many as 50,000 Americans reportedly may have died in 2016 as the result of an opioid-related overdose.

This number of affected Americans continues to increase with no end in sight as the use of prescription opioids to relieve pain has reached staggering levels.

In 2012, more than 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids; the current number undoubtedly is much higher. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Opioids may be found in any medicine cabinet. This group of drugs includes the regularly prescribed painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl.

These drugs interact with opioid reactors on nerve centers in the brain to create a pleasurable experience and relieve pain. However, due to the relief they experience, consumers of these drugs often become dependent upon them.

Once addicted, individuals may turn to heroin, which, although illegal, is often a cheaper and more accessible opioid. Nearly 23 percent of opioid users will eventually become addicted to heroin.

Effects on the workplace

Employees may be prescribed opioids to relieve pain following a workplace injury, which could in turn begin a path to dependency. But whether the origin of opioid use stems from a workplace injury or not, use of these drugs could have a dramatic impact on an employee’s performance.

Opioid dependency often leads to drowsiness, anxiety and depression. An employee with an opioid addiction may struggle to maintain regular attendance or achieve quality goals, or could pose a safety hazard to himself or herself and coworkers.

Moreover, addiction to these drugs usually also causes financial issues because the addict is in constant search for a fix. This could lead to cases of workplace theft or embezzlement.

Lessons for employers

The growing opioid epidemic and its impact on employee behavior and health creates unique challenges for employers. Although no perfect response is available, now is the time for employers to rethink their drug testing and counseling programs in order to keep their employees and workplace safe.

A focus on education, prevention and counseling may help minimize the impact of opioid use on the workplace.

1. Create an environment where employees can disclose opioid-related issues

Given the recent rise of opioid use, employers should consider encouraging employees to tell you when they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers. This starts by creating a workplace environment conducive to the free exchange of information.

Balance the concern of being viewed as an employer who attempts to invade employees’ private home life with later dealing with an employee who quits, overdoses or creates a safety concern due to an addiction you may have ignored.

The key to preventing opioid addiction is educating employees on the potential harmful impacts of abusing painkillers. If you become aware of an employee’s potential abuse of opioids, attempt to approach the employee in a non-confrontational manner to offer assistance with this condition.

Pay special attention to employees returning to work after an injury. Consult your counsel on navigating any potential ADA issues.

2. Reconsider zero-tolerance drug-testing policies

An employee who loses a job because he or she fails a drug test may fall further into the depression often caused by opioid use. Unemployment may lead to more drastic outcomes for the employee, including intentional or accidental overdose.

In order to avoid such a tragedy, employers should revisit their zero-tolerance drug-testing policies.

In light of the opioid epidemic, employers should consider removing any provision requiring automatic termination after the first positive drug test. Instead, amend the policy to include required counseling for employees who fail drug tests. This gives the employee a second chance to become “clean” and/or attempt to end their dependency, and it provides an opportunity to obtain much needed education and counseling on their condition.

The permitted use of prescription drug use at the worksite must also be clearly explained in the policy.

3. Monitor workers’ compensation claims

Many workers’ compensation carriers seek to minimize the costs of claims by finding the most inexpensive treatment option possible. Indeed, under the guise of “conservative” treatment, carriers may be more inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions to “treat” an on-the-job injury versus considering more aggressive treatment options in the first instance (even when medical providers recommend more aggressive treatment).

As such, there can be a higher incident of dependency simply in the name of reducing the financial impact of a workers’ compensation claim. Employers should monitor these trends to evaluate the care provided to injured workers.

Opioid use is increasing at an alarming rate and yet many employers have not addressed this concern in their policies and programs. No perfect plan is available, but you should begin working with counsel to take proactive steps to avoid risks to employees.

Travis Vance and Ed Foulke, Phoenix Business Journal.  Travis Vance is Of Counsel in the Charlotte office of Fisher Phillips. He has tried matters across several industries and various subject matters, including employment litigation, business disputes, and matters prosecuted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.