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The Opioid Crisis and the Workplace

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Opioid prescriptions have nearly quadrupled since 1999 in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These pain killers are addictive, and that addiction has caused a rippling effect across our communities and in the workplace.

The latest numbers from CDC show that 64,070 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, a 21 percent increase over the year before. Approximately three-fourths of these deaths are now caused by opioids. While the opioid crisis is usually portrayed as a problem with the jobless population, some studies have shown that around two-thirds of those who report abusing painkillers are still employed.

Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While this statistic is striking, many others in the workplace right now are using prescription drugs to manage pain and not being able to perform to their potential. Around 70 percent of employers surveyed by the National Safety Council (NSC) have seen some impact of prescription drug use – from missed shifts to impaired work.

When a job involves heavy machinery, having mentally aware workers with fast reflexes is required to keep not only themselves safe, but those around them as well. Opioids hamper brain function and productivity, resulting in an increase in workplace accidents and workers’ compensation claims. According to a study, the opioid abuse costs businesses $16.3 billion in 2013 in disability claims and productivity, and medical costs for opioid abusers are close to twice that of non-abusers. Along these same lines, the average worker misses about 10 days per year, but those abusing pain medication or using heroin miss an average of 29 days of work per year (NSC).

The combination of lowered productivity, higher health care and substance abuse treatment costs, as well as missed work, add up to an economic burden of $78.5 billion, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). To try to combat the drug crisis, many employers are turning to drug testing in pre-employment screening, but make sure the panels you are using include specific testing for opioids. 

Other than drug testing, employers can take a more proactive stance, including having an opioid use education component as part of their program. Another thought is to provide training for supervisors on the signs of abuse and knowing how to refer employees to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if applicable, or help them seek medical treatment. Some companies have used “lunch and learns” to discuss opioid abuse and mental health issues with employees, as well as promoting alternative pain management options, such as chiropractic or osteopathic manipulative treatments.

The opioid crisis is impacting our country in epidemic proportions, and the workplace is feeling the effects in many ways.

Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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