Dealing with Prescription Drug Abuse in the Workplace

Merz guides employers on how best to avoid and support prescription drug abuse (Courtesy of: Holmes Murphy).

As opioid use continues to plague the country, employers are looking for ways to reduce addiction, missed work, and safety issues caused by addiction to highly addictive painkillers. Bonnie Merz is a Dallas-based Senior Claims Consultant at Holmes Murphy, and she advises employers about how to best manage risk in response to drug abuse.

The healthcare industry is particularly vulnerable to this problem, as a Hazeldon Betty Ford study shows that Health Care Providers are more likely than the general public to abuse opioids. Starting in the 1840s when surgeons would abuse their own anesthesia for “ether frolics,” today 10 to 15 percent of providers will misuse substances during their lifetime.

Merz says that back in 1990s, pharmaceutical companies created and aggressively pushed opioids to doctors, raising the number of patients who use, misuse or abuse the drugs. When they were first introduced, she says,  it was thought they were not addictive, which has turned out to be disastrously wrong.

A Quest Diagnostics study said that drug use in the workplace is at its highest rate in a decade, and that employees who use drugs are more than three times as likely to be involved in a workplace accident. “Due to labor shortages, businesses have been pressured to hire more quickly,” said Merz via release. “This can lead to preventative measures being overlooked. Utilizing proper risk management procedures when hiring or drug testing employees can help keep your employees safe and manage drug use in the workforce.”

Merz’s recommendations center around four principals: education, observation, action, and treatment.

Companies should ensure that employees are safe and address the use of prescription painkillers just like they would with drugs and alcohol. Workplace policies can share resources, and benefits programs can be structured to address the misuse of opioids.

Employers are advised to look for signs of drug or opioid abuse such as confusion, slurred speech, itchy skin, making multiple doctor appointments. Expanding drug testing to increase the timing and the method of testing can also identify opioid addiction.

Merz says that employers should become engaged in the claim process if there is injury in the workplace and see if there are other treatment options rather than highly addictive painkillers. She recommends the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for prescribing opioids. Studies by the National Safety Council show that the use of opioids to treat chronic pain have higher health outcomes and higher costs.

For employers, the issue of opioid addiction can lead to internal conflicts about what to do with the employee who is suffering from the disease. Are they a criminal, do they have a disease, or both? “It is a fine line on who you offer to keep their job versus someone who tests positive for marijuana and you terminate them,” Merz says. “It’s a balance.”

To learn more about how to best address the abuse of prescription drugs in the workplace, the National Safety Council has a Prescription Drug Employer Kit, which has tips and tools that may help your company examine and update its drug free workplace and employee benefit programs, information about prescription drug abuse, safety talks and posters for keeping prescription drugs safe and disposing of them. Download it here.