Last updated: September 25, 2023
Today, the U.S. has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of opioid use. In fact, the U.S. consumes at least 75% of the world’s opioid prescription drugs—and over 69% of U.S. opioid users work. These staggering statistics reveal the level of burden that U.S. businesses and organizations of every type and size bear in attempting to manage risks to employees safety and health in their workplaces. To meet the daunting challenge, many of today’s employers maintain strong health and safety training programs and firm policies on drug testing and workplace drug use.
Use of opioids in the workplace
Of course, prescription medications are covered by employee healthcare benefits. When properly used, prescription medications are an important form of medical treatment that can contribute to improved quality of life for many employees. However, a disturbing workplace trend in abuse of prescription opioid pain relief medications has emerged.
Drivers who test positive for opioid use have double the liklihood of other drivers to be in a vehicle collision, and they are 3-7 times more likely to be the cause of the crash they’re involved in. One research study determined that opioid users had 85% more workplace injuries than other workers, per a report of the study provided by The Drug Free America Foundation, Inc.
As stated, the vast majority of illegal drug users in the U.S. are members of the workforce. Consequently, opioid use has led to a broad range of serious consequences for employers and workers throughout the country.
- OSHA Requirements — OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires employers to maintain a work environment that is “free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Opioids affect the brain and behavior, which means its use in a workplace, even for medical purposes, may be construed as an employer failing to fulfill the responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for the user and other workers.
- Detecting Employee Opioid Use — “Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.”
- Increased Work Time Loss — Workers who take high dosages of opiate painkilling medication, for treatment of injuries such as a back strain, stay out of work as much as three times longer than employees with similar injuries who received lower drug dosages.
- Higher Healthcare Expenses — Opioid and other drug use decreases the overall level of workplace safety and causes increases in employers’ overall cost of employee healthcare benefits. Increasing health care expenses, and additional claims for workers’ compensation and disability impact.
- Reduced Productivity — Higher rates of drug use that impairs employees’ physical and mental functionality naturally leads to increased absenteeism and reduced productivity on the job, which can negatively impact the business’s profitability. In fact, prescription opioid use for nonmedical purposes now costs U.S. employers $42 billion in lost productivity alone.
Physical and mental effects
The effects of opioids may include negative impacts to workers’ physical and mental functioning in safety-sensitive tasks such as operating equipment, driving vehicles, critical monitoring and decision-making. For example, employees using opioids at work may experience:
- Reduced ability to focus
- Shortened attention span
- Reduced short-term memory
- Slowed reaction time
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired judgment
Opioid use in the U.S. has reached epidemic levels, and has become a serious challenge for employers. Especially in cases of legally prescribed pain medications that can contribute to work-related injuries. Employers must now reexamine drug-free workplace policies, including matters of prescription drug use at work, the scope of drug testing and the approach to dealing with positive test results, to ensure that existing rules and procedures are sufficient to manage the current risk levels.
One thing is clear—opiates are a significant health and safety concern in U.S. American workplaces. The powerful drugs are highly addictive and can cause impairment that increases risk of workplace errors, accidents and injuries, even when the medications are used as prescribed. Further, increased workers’ compensation costs, length of worker disability, and lost work time are all quite real results of the rise in workplace use of opioid drugs. Therefore, whatever the future outcomes of the legal controversies, controlling opioid use in the workplace remains a general workplace safety priority for U.S. employers.