The opioid crisis in America really began in the latter part of the 1990s. As drugs such as OxyContin were being widely touted for pain treatment, attendant labeling issues, inaccurate information and opioid diversion were contributing to the rampant misuse of these medications. By the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, the country had a full-blown crisis on its hands. The problem with this particular crisis was that because the fields of pain and addiction medicine were relatively new, no one quite understood how to address the issue of opioid addiction.
The tragedy here is that the country still continues to suffer from the effects of opioid addiction. Fentanyl use is now among the leading opioids fueling the country’s current crisis, according to the American Medical Association (AMA). And though efforts have been made and numerous resources have been deployed to try to find a way out of this crisis, there are still so many people falling victim to opioid misuse and ultimately, in some cases, overdose-related deaths. Consider the following:
Abuse of oxycodone and methadone often leads to the use of illegal drugs such as heroin.
In 7 out of 10 prescribed drug overdose deaths, opioids are a factor.
The Local Impact of Opioids
The toll that opioid misuse and abuse has taken on Kansas City is not negligible. According to one recent statistic, between 2019 and 2020, opioid misuse within Kansas City increased by 15%. And in Missouri, some experts estimate that the number of opioid-related deaths increased exponentially during the course of the pandemic—up 40% from February 2020 to February 2021.
Missouri does have a statewide prescription drug monitoring program in place, the abuse of fentanyl and other such drugs still seems to be taking a tragic toll. Missouri also has a program called NOMODEATHS initiated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health which is focused on helping people get access to naloxone, a medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose.
Given that there are currently over 60 million people on some form of prescribed opioid, it could very well be that someone within your office is in fact using a medication of this type. The problem arises when prescription medications, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and others, begin to cause impairment as a result of misuse or overuse. Obviously, there is an immediate inherent danger to the person abusing the opioids, but there can also be a very real danger posed to others in your workplace.
The incorrect use of these types of drugs can lead to an increased risk of workplace incidents, errors and injury; even when these drugs are used as prescribed, there may be precautions that need to be taken in order to avoid accidents or problems. While people often respond differently to opioids, these medications can cause drowsiness, poor memory, confusion, decreased cognitive functions and impairment of neuromuscular coordination.
In light of the side effects of various types of opioid medications, there are industries, such as construction for example, in which it may not be safe to have an employee who is on opioid medication perform their regular duties—at least during the course of their treatment.
Protecting Your Company and Your Employees
When it comes to opioids in the workplace unfortunately there really is no clear-cut answer as to how to address the problem, what actions to take and what the outcome might be. Beyond the physical and mental costs that opioid addiction and/or dependency can have within the context of your workplace, there are also of course the financial costs. Healthcare costs for those with a substance abuse disorder are nearly double what they are for other employees.
And as far as worker’s compensation claims, data shows workers using prescribed opioids have significantly higher claim costs than those with similar injuries who are not taking opioids. Higher claim costs may be attributed to an increase in lost wages as the return-to-work time is often delayed for workers prescribed opioids and possible opioid addiction and dependency treatment.
It is obviously in your best interest, as well as that of your employees and the company as a whole, to be proactive, to take steps that might help protect everyone involved when opioid addiction becomes an all-too-real factor within the workplace.
Educate your employees about the effects of opioid use and abuse. Of course, you want to be careful not to alienate those who may be taking opioids as prescribed to help with a chronic pain issue for example, but providing information not only opens people’s eyes to the true depths of the problem, it also helps remove the stigma that can be attached to opioid use. Creating an environment in which employees feel that they can talk freely is a positive first step toward helping those employees who might need it.
Re-evaluate your policy regarding testing for prescription drugs. Workplace drug testing can serve as a necessary safeguard when implemented properly. You do however want to make sure that you comply with all relevant state and federal laws. When testing for opioid use especially, things can be less cut and dry than when testing for alcohol or illegal drugs. Employees who test positive may have a legitimate prescription from their doctors. Further, they may or may not have a dependency or addiction problem.
Train supervisors and managers to recognize the signs of impairment. While opioid abuse affects people differently, there are some common signs that could suggest that there is a drug issue. Such signs might include increased or false confidence, shallow breathing, impaired judgement, sporadic mood swings, hallucinations, lightheadedness, weight loss, drowsiness and mental fogginess. This list however is by no means all-inclusive. And those addicted to opioids may exhibit a wide range of symptoms.
Offer access to help and treatment. If possible, provide resources for employees seeking help for opioid addiction, especially those who self-disclose the problem. One place to start is your existing healthcare plan. It already may offer benefits to your employees, such as drug abuse programs and access to chronic pain specialists, behavioral health professionals and alternative medical treatments.
Dealing with opioid use in the workplace can be a difficult, not to mention, sensitive situation. You don’t have to go through something like this alone. And you certainly want to comply with laws and regulations surrounding these types of matters where employees are concerned. We are here to offer guidance and help. Don’t hesitate to reach out and schedule a consultation.