Resources & Insights

Employers Can Do More to Stop the Opioid Epidemic

November 28, 2016

The nation’s opioid-abuse epidemic may be easing, but few believe the crisis is anywhere close to being over.

Drug testing
CCIG’s Scott Carlson

According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute, “noticeable decreases” did, in fact, show up in the amount of opioids prescribed per workers’ compensation claim in a majority of 25 states it studied.

The study compared the amount of opioids prescribed over two roughly 24-month periods ending March 2012 and March 2014. Because that’s the most recent data available, it’s impossible to say conclusively whether the trend has continued.

In fact, in response to the epidemic, Colorado authorities this fall unveiled a plan to distribute the life-saving drug naloxone — known by its trade name, Narcan — to first responders across the state.

The human toll has been considerable, with reports of 44 Americans dying each day because of opioid abuse. As many as 85 percent of injured workers in the U.S. were prescribed pain medications between 2010 and 2012. Of the 21.5 million Americans with a substance-use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million were using prescription pain relievers.

The good news is that new prescription-drug monitoring programs, revamped treatment guidelines and stricter drug formularies are all believed to have helped address the problem.

Too Little Testing

These reforms couldn’t have come any sooner, especially for employers in the construction, manufacturing and transportation industries, all of which have been hard-hit by opioid abuse.

Unfortunately, many employers are still failing to address the crisis head-on.

Dr. Don Teater, medical adviser for the National Safety Council, said many employers have yet to begin testing for prescription opioids.

“I’ll be talking to 50 or 60 HR people, and I’ll say, ‘How many of you test for oxycodone?’ And a third of the hands will go up maybe. And oftentimes I’ll say, ‘How many don’t even know what you’re testing for?’ And a number of hands will go up,” Teater said in an interview with NPR.

According to Quest Diagnostics, a testing firm, only 13 percent of the roughly 6.5 million workplace drug tests screen for prescription painkillers.

Pre-employment and random drug screenings, of course, can help employers detect drug abuse in the workplace.

It’s also important to have a clear, written policy in place, one that spells out what exactly represent a violation, as well as the employee’s responsibility to notify their supervisor when there’s a problem.

Teater’s organization also recommends that employees and managers receive training to help them recognize when a co-worker is abusing opioids.

It’s also important to have available an employee assistance program that can help people get treatment for any type of substance-abuse problem.

In the end, not every employee who tests positive for an opioid has a dependency or an addiction problem. However, they may still be impaired, putting themselves and their co-workers at risk for injuries or worse.

Learn more: The proactive role employers can take: Opioids in the workplace

Scott Carlson is a CCIG Assistant Vice President. Reach him at or 720-212-2040.

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