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June 2019  Volume 17, Number 6        

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How to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

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 says 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.

The encouraging news is that employers can play an important role in mitigating this crisis by identifying early signs of drug abuse and educating employees about opioid alternatives and treatments.

How Opioids Became a Crisis

An opioid is a medication used to treat persistent or severe pain. People who take opioids often suffer from a variety of conditions including:

  • Chronic headaches or backaches
  • Severe pain after surgery or an injury
  • Cancer

Opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine and morphine. Heroin, while illegal, is classified as an opioid. Opioids block pain messages sent through the spinal cord to the brain. While opioids can be extremely effective in reducing pain, they also can be highly addictive.

The opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s after professional and consumer groups pushed for increased opioid use for pain management, and pharmaceutical companies assured physicians that prescription opioids were not addictive. At the same time, the makers of OxyContin (oxycodone) increased their marketing efforts and provided free samples at doctor's offices.

What Employers Can Do

An employee who abuses substances is a danger to themselves and to their families and communities. At work, substance abuse impacts workplace safety, health care costs, productivity, absenteeism and job performance.

As an employer, you can train managers to identify early signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and help employees get treatment. Drug-free workplace programs are cost-effective and 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 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

By promoting wellness policies and stressing the importance of self-care, you will support all your employees. 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

Work with your health care coverage broker to find a plan supporting several pain management treatment options, including cultural practices, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, exercise, mindfulness, cognitiv behavioral therapy and occupational therapy.

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.

Typical drug tests detect opiates/heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP and amphetamines. Many commonly abused prescription drugs are not included in federally mandated tests or many other drug testing panels. As an employer, you often can choose to test for more drugs than regulations require. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act may protect an employee’s use of over-the counter or prescription drugs to treat a disability.

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

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In this issue:

This Just In ... New Association Health Plan Rules Deemed "Absurd"

How to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

To Pay or Not to Pay Parental Leave?

Retirement Reform on Senate and House Agendas

Is Fitness Tracking for Better Health Worth the Risk of Losing Privacy?



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