“Our citizens are dying. We must act boldly to stop it,” the commission, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said in an interim report Monday. “The first and most urgent recommendation of this Commission is direct and completely within your control. Declare a national emergency.”
Some 4.3 million people say they’re using prescription painkillers non-medically, and drug overdose is the leading cause of “injury death” in the U.S., attorney James Reidy notes, citing Department of Health and Human Services data. That’s ahead of motor vehicles or firearms, the management-side labor and employment attorney in the Manchester, N.H., office of Sheehan Phinney said.
Widespread opioid abuse costs employers approximately $12 billion annually, with roughly 10 percent to 12 percent of American workers under the influence of drugs at work, Reidy said. In some industries such as construction, trucking or manufacturing, the numbers are even higher, he said March 13 at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Legal & Legislative Conference in Washington.
Testing for opioid and opiate abuse is complicated, Dr. Todd Simo, chief medical officer for employment background check provider HireRight, told Bloomberg BNA March 13. While the average drug test does include some opiate and opioid screening, the focus is on illegal substances, Simo said. Many employers don’t test for oxycodone, fentanyl or Demerol, he said.
“Workplace programs are designed around deterrents, and not specifically detection,” Simo said. The purpose is to deter people from using illegal drugs, but it’s much more difficult to deter employees from using legal substances, he added.
Detecting Abuse in the Workplace
“The problem with opioids—especially when compared to marijuana or alcohol—is that users are well hidden in the workplace,” Reidy said. But even if the drug use isn’t obvious, the impact on the workplace persists, he said.
- excessive time off–being absent, arriving late or leaving early;
- decreased productivity; and
- increased workplace accidents.
In terms of testing, screening for synthetic opioids isn’t as widespread as it should be, and employers often don’t have policies that deal with prescription drugs specifically, Reidy said. “It’s a major health and safety issue,” he said.
Employers may want to consider opioid-specific policies that include working with local police and EMTs on opioid response and providing access to NARCAN, a medicine to counter the effects of opioids, and other overdose response equipment or medications, Reidy said.
A Comprehensive Approach
If an employer has reasonable suspicion that a person is impaired at work or showing signs of drug abuse, there are several ways to address it, Simo said. In addition to ordering a drug screen, employers should have a physician do a medical evaluation, he said. This can be helpful because a lot of people who look profoundly impaired could actually be having a life-threatening event, Simo said. These evaluations can also reveal whether there’s an addiction involved, he added.
Employers should have policies that allow for a recurrent drug testing program, and a for-cause testing program, Simo recommended. And an employer’s medical review officer should communicate with HR about findings and safety concerns and take action as appropriate, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org