November 10, 2017

Opioid Abuse in the Workplace

by Robert M. Robenalt, Fisher Phillips LLP

Our nation’s opioid crisis is the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history. According to the CDC, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths has quadrupled since 1999. 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.

Ohio currently leads the opioid epidemic, with more overdose deaths than any other state – and it’s having a significant impact on our workforce, especially given opioids are often prescribed to treat work-related injuries or conditions protected under the 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 healthcare 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.

In response, employers are becoming an integral part of a massive effort to help educate, support and rehabilitate opioid-dependent workers. Although they can’t diagnose or treat opioid-dependent workers, employers can help by providing educational resources and better access to treatment. Many employers are actually rethinking their zero-tolerance drug policies and opting for a more flexible approach, including:

  • The revival of “last-chance agreements” that offer drug-dependent workers a second chance to get clean – as opposed to immediate termination – after the first positive drug test. This provides an opportunity for employees to obtain treatment and get back into the workforce. However, employers still reserve the legal right to enforce disciplinary actions and/or termination for drug-related workplace misconduct.
  • Expanding supervisor training programs to include proper methods for detecting signs of drug use, how to conduct fitness-for-duty evaluations and reasonable suspicious drug testing, and procedures for assisting workers with access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) or other treatment programs.
  • Offering employee education programs and EAPs that provide information on harmful effects of opioid abuse, recognizing signs of drug abuse, proper handling and storage of medicine, 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.

Although there’s no “perfect” solution, employers can take these proactive steps to help address and combat the growing opioid crisis in the workplace.

Robert M. Robenalt