Opioid Epidemic: What Employers Should Do

Opioid addiction has been declared a national public health emergency. More than 2.6 million Americans have been prescribed opioids or obtained them from friends or others and are now addicted.

Since the mid 1990's opioids have been commonly prescribed for pain. The drug companies understated their addictive potential and they became one of the most prescribed drugs in the US. Because of lack of insurance or to reduce medical costs, people have obtained opioids from others, rather than seeing a doctor for their pain.

In addition to the addiction, use of opioids have resulted in drug overdoses (and death) and the use of other illegal drugs, such as heroin.


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Handling opioid abuse is tricky for employers, because the original problem usually started with a legitimate prescription, but escalated to an addiction. Ensuring workplace safety should always be your highest priority. However, "no-tolerance" policies which fire employees who flunk a drug test can cause employees to hide their problem rather than seek help. Some recommendations for businesses ask employers to "talk to employees about alternative therapies" - which can easily cross the line violating patient privacy. It seems more prudent to make sure your health insurance covers alternative therapies and addiction recovery, and to talk with your insurance provider to learn about the methods they are using to reduce opioid addiction.

The National Safety Council has created the Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help businesses respond to this crisis. It has information to:

Opioid addiction has special challenges for businesses with 15 or more employees, because using valid prescriptions and recovering from an addiction are generally covered by the Americans Disabilities Act. This means that employers need to make "reasonable" accommodations to meet their needs, such as allowing time to go to addiction treatment programs. Reasonable accommodations do not include overlooking the clear dangers of using drugs while at the workplace.

Here is an article with more information on ADA and opioids.

Here are signs that someone is abusing opioids:
  • Physical signs:
    • Noticeable elation/euphoria.
    • Marked sedation/drowsiness.
    • Confusion.
    • Constricted pupils.
    • Slowed breathing.
    • Intermittent nodding off, or loss of consciousness.
    • Constipation.
  • Other signs of opiate abuse include:
    • Doctor shopping (getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors).
    • Shifting or dramatically changing moods.
    • Extra pill bottles turning up in the trash.
    • Social withdrawal/isolation.
    • Sudden financial problems.
  • Withdrawal symptoms can mimic flu symptoms and include:
    • Headache.
    • Nausea and vomiting.
    • Diarrhea.
    • Sweating.
    • Fatigue.
    • Anxiety.
    • Inability to sleep.
Source: https://drugabuse.com/library/opiate-abuse/