How to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

June 5, 2019

Death from an accidental opioid overdose has become one of the top five causes of death in recent years.

The United States is experiencing an epidemic of opioid addiction. The National Safety Council released a report that a person born in 2017 has a greater chance of dying from an accidental opioid overdose than from a car crash. Accidental opioid overdose is now one of the top five causes of death behind heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease and suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse in this country is $78.5 billion a year, which includes the costs of health care, lost productivity, treatment, and use of the criminal justice system.

This article addresses the problem of opioids in all aspects of the organization, not just workers compensation. It’s important to limit the use of opioids as much as possible in workers compensation cases (we’ve written about this in previous newsletters). But it’s not always possible to rule out opioids in treating injuries. That’s why it’s necessary to develop a coherent anti-opioid policy that addresses the problem in all aspects of the firm, not just in the workers comp setting. For one thing, by creating awareness of the problem among all employees, an injured employee can hopefully make more informed decisions relating to opioid use.

What Employers Can Do

Train managers to identify early signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and help employees get treatment. If an employee has been using opioids, there are cost-effective workplace programs that can help employees avoid or manage a drug crisis. Effective programs consist of:

  • Written policies

  • Employee education

  • Management training

  • Employee assistance program

  • Drug testing

Written Policy

A written policy tells your employees exactly what is expected at work and what options are available should they have a drug problem.

Work with your legal counsel, workers comp risk managers, and human resources department to ensure the policy follows federal and state guidelines.

A few topics your policy could cover:
  • Prohibited behavior, including possessing or selling drugs or intoxicants

  • Employee responsibilities

  • Disciplinary actions

  • Who to call for treatment

Employee Education

Start with management teams; and share information with employees through workshops, flyers, emails, videos and social media. When hosting social events, require they be alcohol and drug-free.

Wellness talks can be an opportunity to discuss how easy it is to become addicted to opioids. Tell employees that substance use disorder is a preventable and treatable illness, and your workplace is recovery-friendly.

Review policies about substance abuse affecting hiring, discipline, retention and termination of employees. Encourage employees to use sick days not only when they are ill, but for medical, dental, mental and/or chemical health.

Inform employees that there are alternatives to opioids for pain management, and that opioids are not more effective for most pain. Dr. Don Teater, a medical advisor for the National Safety Council, said that for pain related to common workplace-related injuries, opioids are not any more effective than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) alternatives such as Tylenol, Advil or generic ibuprofen. They also usually are more affordable and safer than opioids.

Management and supervisor training

Train supervisors to convey the company policy to enforce drug and prescription drug policies, and that there are programs available to help battle addiction. Supervisors also must know what to do if someone seeks assistance or they see signs that someone is under the influence.

The medication Naloxone temporarily blocks opioid effects during an overdose. Make sure you have Naloxone on hand and supervisors are trained to administer it if an employee overdoses.

Employee Assistance Program

Consider a plan with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP assists employees in resolving personal problems, including alcohol or substance abuse; child or elder care issues; relationship challenges; financial or legal problems; wellness matters; and assistance in handling traumatic events. Vendors who are part of comprehensive health insurance plans can provide care over the phone, computer or in person at no cost to employees.

Drug testing

While drug testing can be intrusive, it also is a valuable tool to prevent drug-related incidents. Drug-testing programs often curb drug abuse because employees fear getting caught. Seek legal guidance before starting any drug testing program to ensure it complies with state law and federal guidelines. Also, remember that testing done before an employee starts work will not detect drug use after they begin employment.

Please contact us if you need assistance in developing substance abuse guidelines for your firm.