Are Employers Lagging on Their Opioid Response?

Despite the strong connection between workplace injuries and opioid addiction, a majority of the Nation's employers do not feel they are fully capable of dealing with the concern, says the National Safety Council (NSC). Data reveals that many employers remain hesitant to take the steps necessary to prevent or control the risks posed by a potential opioid problem in their workforce and, as a consequence, injured workers continue to suffer a higher than normal incidence rate of opioid addiction. However, by focusing their efforts on two primary objectives – drug use policies and health care oversight - corporate leadership can reduce both the likelihood of injury and the risk of potential opioid addiction if an on-the-job injury actually occurs.

The Status of Opioid Management in the Workplace

According to the NSC, three in four employers (75%) report work-based opioid challenges are negatively impacting their business, with more than a third (38%) experiencing poor performance or absenteeism, and almost a third (31%) suffering through an overdose or an on-the-job injury. In fact, workplace overdose deaths (by drugs or alcohol) have risen 25% in each of the past five years, another indicator that organizations are struggling to contribute all that they can to reduce (or at least stem) the tide of workplace-situated, addiction disasters.

A closer look at the NSC survey adds depth to the conclusion that employers are perplexed by the problem:

  • Significantly, their attention is not focused on the drug issue but instead, is focused on finding qualified applicants and providing them with sufficient benefits.
  • Of those that do have drug-related policies in place, only half are confident that those are appropriate to deal with any drug issue that arises.
  • Ironically, concerns about workers’ compensation costs, which are already high, do not also compel employers to try to reduce those costs by addressing their drivers: unsafe working conditions and on-the-job drug use, opioid or otherwise.

Despite years of data and information relating to the opioid crisis and its impact on America's workforce, it appears that the country's employers - the front line in many cases for injury and opioid addiction prevention - have not yet embraced the concern as their own or one they should be controlling.

Not New; Not Going Away

Ignoring the issue is not an appropriate response, however. At CompEx MSA, we've dedicated several articles over the past two years to the opioid concern, paying specific attention to its impact on the workers’ compensation sector.

  • Because on-the-job injuries are a common occurrence and frequently involve pain and pain management activities, doctors issue a high number of opioid prescriptions to injured workers for pain management.
  • Employers bear a significant financial burden for the crisis.
    • According to the International Risk Management Institute (IRMI), companies paid over $50 billionfor opioid prescriptions for injured workers between 2007 and 2016. That statistic doesn't include the added costs of lost time, reduced productivity, or the costs of extended health care needed to manage not just the underlying injury but also the resulting opioid addiction (when those occur).
    • Employers are also adding the expense of opioid treatment services to their employee's health care benefits, as a means of proactively keeping costs down.
  • Governments and agencies have stepped up their responses to the crisis by layering controls over the prescription of opioids that reduce their strength per pill, the number of pills available per fill, and the duration of the prescription.

Despite these efforts, the opioid challenge continues to take lives prematurely, to such an extent that it has single-handedly reduced the country's average life expectancy by 2.5 months (so far).

The Disconnect Needs Attention

These facts and figures about the prevalence and toxicity of the opioid concern across America's industrial complex should raise every employer's concern about their possibly less-than-comprehensive response to the issue. The best response would incorporate each of the three elements of the current concern to lay a sustainable and effective foundation for a comprehensive solution that:

  • addresses the employer's preferences (quality staff, appropriate benefits and cost controls);
  • reduces the number of injuries that occur at the workplace (preventing the opportunity to develop an opioid addiction), and
  • manages existing pain concerns with appropriate controls over prescribed opioids.

While maintaining the quality of staff and value of benefits is specific to each business, all businesses can benefit from addressing the other two legs of the triad, preventing injuries and properly caring for those that occur. In reality, attention to the latter two (prevention and care) also assists in the retention of the first (a high-quality staff).

Preventative Actions

Maintaining a safe workplace is perhaps the best route to an uninjured workforce, which is also key to keeping corporate costs in line. Most employers are careful to maintain the workplace safety guidelines established for their industry by the government; keeping those current is a critical component of managing a healthy workforce.

One element that is often missing from those 'workplace safety' standards, however, is a fully informed and enforced drug-free workplace policy. The NSC survey indicates that, although 86% of companies have such policies on their books, only 60% have procedures specifically requiring workers to report to their bosses their use of prescription opioids. Half of the survey respondents (49%) were not confident that their HR policies had sufficiently covered the issue of opioid misuse and use in the workplace. Further, even if the policies themselves were completely comprehensive about all opioid-related concerns, almost four in five (79%) employers did not believe that their workers would be able to identify the warning signs of a growing opioid dependency accurately.

Clearly, there are many policy and educational options available to employers today to improve how employers manage the use of drugs in the workplace that can escalate their risk of developing an opioid crisis within their staff. Accordingly, the NSC recommends that every organization review their existing documentation to ensure that it includes:

  • a clearly written statement regarding the use of drugs in the workplace;
  • policies that require workers to receive appropriate education about the issue (so they can determine for themselves if they have or are developing a problem), and
  • policies that require supervisors to receive training so they can ask about drug use and spot the signs and symptoms that might indicate an addiction is pending.

Remedial Actions

There are also actions employers can take after discovering an addiction in a worker, too, that can reduce overall costs and get the employee back on the job as quickly as possible.

  • They can ensure that their prescribers follow the opioid management guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control.
  • By working closely with insurers and pharmacies, employers can structure their health plans, benefits packages, and policies to keep an eye on pain management in general and the use of prescribed opioids in particular.
  • Tracking the data related to opioid prescriptions - dosage; the number of pills per fill, and the duration of the prescription - can flag if or when that situation is going off its course.
  • Not insignificantly, employers can offer education and support to workers who might need opioids because of a job-related injury, so they know what to watch for and where to get help.

Every day, over one hundred people die prematurely because of an opioid addiction or overdose. A significant percentage of those people began their journey to addiction because of a job-related injury. Employers, therefore, are in a singularly unique position to address the opioid crisis through better management of their organization and workforce. Ironically, by changing their corporate goals to prioritize safety and drug-use management, they will also achieve their ultimate goal: attracting and retaining a highly qualified – and drug-free, uninjured - staff. For thousands of workers across the country, it's becoming increasingly imperative that more employers adopt this reprioritization sooner rather than later.