November 6, 2019

By Selin Hoboy, Vice President of Government Affairs and Compliance at Stericycle

Employers are struggling to find enough skilled workers for essential roles. While all industries are being affected by the worker shortage, this is being compounded by the effects of the opioid crisis.

Industries such as construction, manufacturing and retail are the most affected according to data from the National Safety Council (NSC). It is known that it is not safe for manufacturing and industrial workers to do their jobs while using opioids at work, yet these are often the workers most vulnerable to injuries which could result in use of opioids for pain relief.

accidental opioid overdose
For the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a car crash. In 2017, an estimated 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, with nearly 70% of those deaths involving opioids.

The Reality

There are many elements that have combined to create this massive epidemic, which is heightened in small towns due to the prevalence of injury-prone and hard labor jobs and job loss from the collapse of key industries such as coal mining, among other factors.

Now, for the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a car crash. In 2017, an estimated 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, with nearly 70% of those deaths involving opioids.

Beyond crippling the health and wellbeing of those who struggle with opioid use disorder and negatively affecting their families, the epidemic also impacts businesses in every industry. In 2017, 95% of the US drug overdose deaths occurred among the working age population. From 1999 to 2015, the loss of labor slowed the annual real gross domestic product growth rate by 0.6 percentage points and cost the U.S. economy roughly $1.6 trillion.

The crisis presents especially clear challenges for manufacturers. In one of the most in-depth studies on the subject related to this industry, Yale researchers looked at opioid prescribing patterns for U.S. manufacturing workers over a decade and identified factors related to chronic or long-term prescribing trends. According to their findings, the number of industrial workers prescribed opioids increased substantially between 2003 and 2013. Predictors of chronic prescribing included older age, hourly wage (versus salaried workers), and the presence of lower back pain.

But while the NSC reported that 75% of all employers say they have been directly impacted by opioid misuse, just 17% of employers feel extremely well prepared to address it.

Some of the negative effects of opioid abuse that impact manufacturing employers and their workers include impaired job performance, absenteeism and potential arrests. Even worse, opioid related overdose deaths on the job are on the rise. Unintentional drug overdoses at work increased 25% from 2016 to 2017 – the fifth consecutive year that workplace drug overdoses increased by 25%. However, there are some proactive steps employers can take to help curb this epidemic in the workplace.

Warning Signs of Opioid Abuse

First, employers need to be able to recognize the warning signs of opioid abuse in order to quickly respond and protect the safety of the impaired employee, as well as other team members. Slurred speech and sudden absences from work are just a few signs employers should be aware of when investigating if an employee is abusing opioids. One NSC survey found that just 13% of employers feel very confident that their workers could identify signs of opioid misuse in a colleague, but despite that fact, only 24% said they offer employee training on this topic.

Opioid Crisis Response Strategy

Second, opioid abuse and addiction can be prevented by developing a culture of health and wellbeing that reduces stigma and supports recovery. It is important to ensure this concept is embraced by all levels of leadership.

Implementing a robust opioid crisis response HR policy includes:

  • Teaching workers about opioid risks and signs of misuse,
  • Working with in-house or outside counsel to develop guidelines for employees who may need to take opioids.
  • Establishing a support program for those in recovery who plan to return to work.
  • Educating workers on safe medication storage and disposal.

Consider hiring an expert to conduct a workshop or introduce resources to educate HR professionals and employees on the most up-to-date workplace policies and programs that put employees first. The National Safety Council created the Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit with content for HR professionals, safety professionals, executive leadership and employees, whose buy-in is essential to implementing any successful workplace policy.

Drug-Free Workplace Policy

Employers should have a clear and easily communicated set of procedures regarding opioid use and misuse that governs all interactions with their team members. One approach is to implement a drug-free workplace policy, which is increasingly common in light of the potential loss of revenue generated by opioid use disorder – but which can stigmatize employees and potentially create legal risk for the employer if not carefully and compassionately executed. From confronting employees who may have a prescription drug problem to understanding state labor laws, there are important legal issues to consider so that companies do not put themselves at risk for litigation or alienate employees who may need their support.

Prescription Drug Disposal

Lastly, safe medication disposal programs to remove leftover medications from employees’ homes is an important step that employers can take to prevent opioid abuse by employees and their family members. Prescription drugs in the home are fueling the opioid crisis. According to a survey by SAMHSA, two thirds of teens who misused pain relievers say that they got them from family and friends, including their home’s medicine cabinets.

Safe medication disposal options include medication collection kiosks and DEA drug take back events hosted by communities. Additionally, medication mail back envelopes, provided by employers as an employee benefit, offer employees a safe, convenient and environmentally friendly way to dispose of unused or expired medications. These pre-paid, pre-addressed envelopes allow employees to easily remove medications from their homes and reduce the risk of prescription drug abuse.

The data-driven reality of the opioid crisis at work presents complex challenges for manufacturers and all industries. Employers have the ability – and the responsibility – to take action to protect people, productivity and profits.

About the author
Selin Hoboy is the Vice President of Government Affairs and Compliance at Stericycle, a business-to-business services company and complete provider of compliant medication and sharps disposal solutions that protect people and brands, promote health and safeguard the environment. Stericycle was the exclusive launch partner for the National Safety Council (NSC)’s Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit, which encourages employers to proactively address opioid use and misuse in their workplaces by using an array of resource (videos, policies, pamphlets and more).