More Employers Are Tackling Opioid Abuse... Are You?

September 30, 2019 - minute read

If your company drug policy doesn’t include specific provisions for opioid abuse, maybe it’s time to rethink the issue. These days, your employees are more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than in a car accident. More than 47,000 Americans die from opioid overdoses every year. 

For those whose reflexively say, “not in our workplace!” the U.S. National Safety Council disagrees. According to a recent study, two-thirds of opioid abusers remain actively employed, posing a hazard to themselves, their coworkers, and their employers.   

Furthermore, if your workers engage in physical labor, the likelihood is even greater. The NSC found that construction workers, miners, and service workers—i.e., people who work physically hard for a living—are twice as likely to develop an opioid addiction than white-collar professionals.

Although the issue is widely understood, not all employers have taken action. According to a recent employer survey, only 17% of employers feel they have appropriate HR policies and resources in place. Corporate America has some catching up to do. Does that include your workplace?   

How Opioid Abuse Hurts Employers

In addition to destroying lives and families, the opioid crisis hurts employers in measurable ways. When workers are impaired by opioids—whether legally prescribed oxycodone or illegal drugs like heroin—it typically results in:

  • Lost productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased health insurance usage
  • Declines in workplace safety
  • Higher Workers’ Compensation claims
  • Lowered morale

Opioids may even be contributing to the current labor shortage. Between 2000 and 2016, 1.6 million people exited the workforce as a result of opioid abuse.

Developing an Opioid Policy

There are a number of steps employers can take to address—and prevent—opioid addiction at their place of business. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans recommends employers analyze medical claims to gauge the problem in their workplace. 

Furthermore, experts recommend that employers treat employees struggling with opioid abuse with compassion—particularly since, for many blue-collar workers, their first introduction to prescription pain medication resulted from treatment of work-related injuries.

In addition, employers can:

  • Develop thoughtful HR policies for addressing opioid abuse, with a focus on supporting worker recovery rather than punitive action. 
  • Promote increased awareness, training managers and employees to recognize signs of potential opioid abuse and providing a protocol for responding.
  • Connect employees to treatment and recovery resources, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs, which combine the use of methadone or similar drugs with behavioral therapy and are found to be the most effective treatment.
  • Update their prescription drug policies to limit initial prescriptions for opioids.
  • Work proactively with their prescription drug program provider or pharmacy benefit manager to monitor and manage opioid prescriptions and usage.
  • Make sure their health insurance covers and encourages alternative pain management treatments, such as physical therapy, from the outset.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that employers with a high-risk workforce consider making the drug naloxone—which counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose—available at its worksites. Such a program would need to be developed in consultation with safety and legal professionals, after weighing liability issues, state statutes and the willingness of staff to be trained on the drugs’ administration.  

When developing an HR policy, keep in mind that 90% of substance abusers can and will recover from their disorders. 

Be Mindful of ADA Compliance

When an employee or job applicant has been diagnosed with an Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), and is receiving treatment for it, he or she is generally considered protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For example, should a MAT medication turn up in an employee or applicant’s blood test, employers are cautioned not to jump the gun. Before drawing conclusions, get the whole story. Make an individualized assessment of the employee or applicant’s ability to safely, effectively perform the job at hand—even if it means making some accommodations, like allowing time out of the workday to visit a methadone clinic.

Furthermore, employers who terminate workers for taking leave to receive inpatient drug abuse treatment risk facing an EEOC disability discrimination lawsuit. One North Carolina software company was recently fined $80,000 to settle such a lawsuit. In addition, the employer was required to amend its HR policies and conduct annual staff training on substance abuse. It’s preferable to get out in front it.

In summary, addressing opioid abuse in the workplace is far from simple. Smart employers are continuously fine-tuning their drug policies as more information becomes known. EPAY Systems is committed to helping employers solve their HR challenges. For more guidance on tackling substance abuse in your workplace, watch our free, educational webinar, Reasonable Suspicion: What to Do if You Suspect an Employee is under the Influence at Work.

Filed Under: HR News Workforce Management Employee Benefits