Opioid Abuse In The Workplace

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Our nation’s opioid crisis has been described as the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history. The number of overdose deaths from opioids has quadrupled since 1999, according to the CDC. In fact, six out of 10 overdose deaths are the result of opioid abuse. And for every person who dies from a drug overdose, another 130 individuals are living with an addiction.

In a grim reality, Ohio leads the opioid epidemic, with more overdose deaths than any other state. As many Ohio businesses – both large and small – have discovered, the opioid crisis is having a significant impact on the workforce, especially given that opioids are commonly prescribed to treat work-related injuries or conditions protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This has left employers grappling with issues of lost productivity, higher absenteeism, greater risk of workplace injuries, an increase in positive drug tests, workplace theft and higher health care costs. Many businesses are even experiencing labor shortages due to more difficulty in hiring and retaining a sufficient number of workers who can successfully pass a drug test, leading some employers to scrap their drug testing policies altogether.

In response, employers are being urged to become an integral part of a massive effort to help educate, support and rehabilitate opioid-dependent workers. But how?

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How Employers Can Take a Proactive Role

Generally speaking, employers should develop a five-pronged approach to drug abuse at work: a written drug-free workplace policy, a supervisor training program, an employee education and awareness program, an employee assistance program (EAP) and a drug testing policy.

Although employers are not able to diagnose or treat opioid-dependent workers, they can help those employees by providing educational resources and better access to treatment. With the growing opioid crisis, many employers are actually shifting away from zero-tolerance drug policies and instead turning to more proactive measures, including:

The revival of “last-chance agreements” that offer drug-dependent employees a second chance to get clean – as opposed to immediate termination – after the first positive drug test. This provides employees with an opportunity to obtain treatment and get back into the workforce. However, it’s important to note employers still reserve the legal right to enforce disciplinary actions and/or termination for drug-related workplace misconduct, such as on-the-job impairment, tardiness, absenteeism, workplace accidents and theft.

Expanding supervisor training programs to include proper methods for detecting the signs of drug use, how to conduct fitness-for-duty evaluations and reasonable suspicious drug testing, and procedures for assisting employees when reaching out to EAPs or other treatment programs for help with their addiction.

Offering employee education programs and EAPs that provide information on the harmful effects of opioid abuse, recognizing signs of drug abuse, proper handling and storage of medicine at home, and how to access treatment for a worker or loved one. In addition, employers may want to consider appointing a compliance officer to oversee these programs and address any confidentiality issues associated with drug testing.

Interplay with the ADA

Employers must also understand the interplay between illegal drug use and the ADA. Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from asking about an employee’s disability, illness or addiction. In most cases, employers only learn of an employee’s addiction indirectly from co-workers or suspect it due to workplace misconduct.

In the rare event that an employee voluntarily shares their addiction, an employer will need to determine if the worker has a “qualified disability,” meaning he or she no longer engages in illegal drug use and is enrolled in a treatment program. In this case, an employer is obligated under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodation for the worker – such as an unpaid leave of absence or schedule adjustments to attend treatment – unless it would be an undue burden.

On the Workers’ Compensation Front

Most insurers seek to minimize the impact of claims by finding the least expensive treatment for work-related injuries – usually prescription painkillers – even when medical providers recommend a more aggressive option. However, this dynamic can lead to an increased risk of opioid dependency and higher tolerance levels in the event of a future surgery.

Recently, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation put limits on the use of opioids to treat work-related injuries and began covering treatment for opioid-dependent workers. Employers can also work with their workers’ compensation insurers to closely monitor the use and abuse of opioids by injured workers, and provide access to alternative treatment options.

Although there’s no “perfect” solution, employers can address and combat the opioid crisis by taking these proactive steps to help get opioid-dependent employees back into the workforce. Bob Robenalt

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