The Opioid Crisis: How It Affects the Workplace & What Employers Can Do

Thursday, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency to combat the nation’s opioid epidemic. After taking office in January, President Trump appointed a commission, headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to study what he calls, “the worst drug crisis in American history.” By declaring a public health emergency, funds from the Public Health Emergency Fund can be reallocated to existing programs that specifically include participants with addictions, ensuring more access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone and increasing monitoring of opioid prescriptions to prevent abuse.

In his address, President Trump also directed government agency and department heads to focus all appropriate emergency authority efforts to reducing the number of deaths caused by the opioid crises. The declaration will need to be renewed every 90 days and does not guarantee additional federal funding to addiction programs. As a long-term solution, a group of Democratic senators introduced a bill this week that would provide over $45 billion to opioid abuse prevention, surveillance, and treatment programs.

According to the CDC, more than 140 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Opioids such as fentanyl, oxycodone, and hydrocodone killed more than 34,500 people last year. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has reached such proportions that police are no longer shocked to see drug users collapse in public. Last year, Massachusetts newspaper the Eagle-Tribune published a horrifying video of a young mother lying unconscious in a Family Dollar store after overdosing. The woman’s 2-year-old-daughter was present, wearing footie pajamas as she tried to wake her unconscious mother. In a 2014 study, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 4.3 million Americans are engaged in non-medical use of prescription opioids, with approximately 1.9 million Americans meeting the criteria a “use disorder” based on their use of prescription opioids in the past year.

Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. Employers cannot afford to underestimate the potential dangers that may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets. Taking medications with a valid prescription is completely legal, which is why administering prescription drug policies and communicating the need for them in the workplace has been difficult. If an employee on prescription medication is injured on the job, employers can be held legally responsible. Seventy-one percent of U.S. employers say they have been affected in some way by employee misuse of legally prescribed medications, including opioids, according to a recent 2017 survey.

This survey conducted by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit chartered by Congress, found that seven in ten employers have felt the effects employees’ prescription drug use in work-related incidents, including absenteeism, use of prescription pain relievers at work, positive drug tests, and impaired or decreased job performance. These issues not only result in complaints to HR, but they can also negatively impact employee morale, decreasing productivity or creating potential hazards on the job.

The National Safety Council recommends a variety actions employers can take to maintain a drug-free workplace, including:
  • Define the employee’s role in making the workplace safe
  • Add prescription drug testing/illicit drug testing to the hiring process, employment requirements, and internal policies and procedures documentation
  • Communicate what employees should do if they are prescribed medications that carry a warning label or may cause impairment
  • List the procedures or corrective actions the employer will follow if an employee is suspected of misusing prescription drugs (including larger doses than prescribed and using more frequently than prescribed)
  • Train supervisory staff and educate employees to identify warning signs
  • Review service coverage for behavioral health and/or employee assistance program (EAP) needs
Only 19% of employers feel “extremely prepared” to deal with prescription drug misuse in the workplace. For help creating prescription drug policies and managing opioid use at work, you are welcome to call one of our highly-trained HR professionals at 770.339.0000, option 1, or email your Client Services representative at


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