Last updated: September 25, 2023
When you consider the fact that on average 46% of Americans are taking one or more prescription drugs in a month’s time, it’s common knowledge that they’re in the workplace. Most employees taking prescription medication don’t suffer any ill effects from the drugs they’re physicians prescribe.
However, what about those that do?
Employees suffering from chronic pain or anxiety, for example, may have obtained a prescription for opioids or benzodiazepines, such as oxymorphone or Xanax. Both medications fall into the controlled substances category and have well-known side effects. They can cause the user to become drowsy and that might cause an accident.
It’s a fine line
Employees and job applicants have the right to keep their medical records private. That includes information regarding prescription medication. In order to remain in compliance with regulations put in place by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in most cases, an employer can’t ask about prescription drug use.
It’s included in the Americans with Disabilities Act but pertains to all employees.
Knowing when to cross it
The EEOC left carve-outs in place allowing employers to make exceptions to the rule of employee privacy and prescription drugs. Moreover, the DOT (Department of Transportation) requires employers of the safety-sensitive workforce to drug test employees and applicants.
When regulated by the DOT, anyone testing positive for drug use is notified by the MRO (Medical Review Officer). Part of the process involves allowing the employee or prospective employee to provide a valid reason for the positive result.
The required supporting evidence requires both a valid prescription and a written response from the doctor who prescribed the drug. If the physician expresses that they believe the employee can function properly under the influence of the drug, the MRO takes the information into consideration before making a final decision.
Employers who don’t operate under DOT authority are more likely to be prohibited from asking questions related to employee drug use. However, positions that can be directly related to safety concerns, operating a forklift or other equipment, for example, can apply.
Some companies require disclosing whether or not employees or job applicants of certain positions take prescription medication for a controlled substance. They include it in their written policies and procedures. It’s also wise to have the policies reviewed by legal counsel. Ascertaining that you remain in compliance is your best defense against the possibility of a future lawsuit.
On a case by case basis
As a rule, asking the prescription drug question is off-limits. If asking the question directly relates to the employee’s position or job performance from a safety standpoint, employers retain the right to ask it.
Safety issues are the main reason that employers implement drug-free workplace programs. Workplace accidents occur less frequently. Attendance and productivity improve as well.
Prescriptions for opioids and other drugs with dangerous side effects raise a serious safety concern for employers—even if they’ve been prescribed by a physician. Obtaining the information necessary to determine that your workplace is free of these and other dangerous drugs is your responsibility as an employer.
Your employees depend on you to provide a safe work environment for everyone.