How Employers Can Best Fight the Opioid Crisis

Opioids shrink the ranks of willing workers and add costs ranging from lost productivity to Workers’ Comp for overdose deaths.

I’m sure you are aware that America faces an opioid drug crisis, but do you know just how bad it is?

In 2016, more than 64,000 people died from overdoses of opioids—a mind-boggling 22% increase over the previous year. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

“It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,” Dr. Thomas A. Andrew, the chief medical examiner of the state of New Hampshire, recently told The New York Times. In 2016, the death toll from opioid overdoses in New Hampshire alone was nearly 500. Overwhelmed by the enormous number of autopsies required for overdose victims, Andrew is retiring. Other states are under similar pressure.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration special agent Kevin Hall told an industry meeting last May that he was concerned by growth in violations by truck drivers and fleets that failed to drug test driver applicants. In one case a driver was found overdosed in the cab of his truck with the needle still in his arm—after he was fired from another carrier for failing a drug test.

Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton, believes the increase in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 may account for 20% of the decline in men’s labor force participation over those years. In 2016, nearly half of prime age men not in the labor force took pain medication on a daily basis, his research found.

Muncie, Indiana, is so hard hit that lack of staff forced Gills Brothers Furniture owner Richard Gill to start driving a forklift in the company’s warehouse, NPR reports. He was interviewed at a local diner that doesn’t provide spoons because they are stolen to cook heroin, and has a container in the bathroom for disposal of used needles.

What Employers Can Do

“Although opioid use continues to increase at an alarming rate, many employers haven’t addressed this concern in their policies and programs,” say attorneys Edwin G. Foulke Jr. and Travis Vance of the Fisher Phillips law firm. “Now is the time to rethink your drug testing and counseling programs to keep your employees and workplace safe,” starting with educating your workforce about the harmful impacts of these drugs.

They urge employers to create an environment where employees are more likely to disclose opioid-related issues. “You should consider encouraging employees to tell you if they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers.” If you become aware of potential abuse in the workplace, they recommend approaching the employee in a cordial, non-confrontational manner to offer assistance.

They also suggest employers revisit zero-tolerance policies and offer alternatives to termination, such as mandatory counseling. Since last December OSHA decreed that employers can perform drug tests after a workplace accident only if there is reason to believe it was caused by impairment. (Excepted are truck drivers, who come under FMCSA rules.)

Closely monitor workers’ comp claims, Foulke and Vance suggest. Many workers’ comp carriers (and even employers) seek to minimize the impact of claims by resorting to the least expensive treatment option. Insurers may be more inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions to “treat” an injury versus costlier treatment options. Also monitor the behavior of those who return to work after an injury for signs of opioid abuse.

Also see if your health insurance provider covers employee drug counseling, and make sure employees are aware of this option. “Providing employees robust counseling on opioid use and addiction may prevent further drug abuse,” the lawyers stress.

“There is no perfect plan currently available,” Foulke and Vance admit, but they believe taking proactive steps and avoiding risks to your employees is a good place to start.

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