Opioids in the Workplace: Four Lessons for Employers

 Opioids in the Workplace: Four Lessons for Employers
By Michael V. Abcarian

 With drug overdoses becoming the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50, the misuse of prescription opioids has reached alarming levels. Last year an estimated 50,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses, and a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration disclosed two million Americans have developed various medical disorders from abusing prescription medications.

The most abused opioids include painkillers of the kind frequently prescribed following workplace injuries, such as oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl, which are found in hundreds of thousands of household medicine cabinets across the country.

Opioids interact with certain nerve receptors in the brain to create pleasurable feelings and relieve pain—and they come with high risk for dependency. The disastrous effects of opioid abuse can unfortunately extend to the workplace. What role can employers play to combat this epidemic?

Workplace Effects Of Opioids

Regardless of how an employee’s opioid abuse may begin, these drugs can have dramatic effects on work performance. Opioid dependency may lead to drowsiness, impaired judgment, anxiety and depression. Dependent or addicted employees may find it difficult to meet attendance or performance requirements and may also pose safety threats to themselves and others. In addition, the opioid-dependent employee’s preoccupation with obtaining his or her drug of choice could lead to criminal behavior such as theft.

Four Important Lessons For Employers

Without a doubt, now is the time to rethink your drug testing and counseling programs to keep your employees and workplace safe. A focus on education, prevention and counseling may help reduce the impact of opioid use on your workplace. When executing a plan to deal with this issue, consider these four components:

  1. Create An Atmosphere Where Employees Feel Comfortable Disclosing Opioid-Related Issues 
    Encourage employees to tell you if they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers. The best way to do this is to create a workplace environment where employees feel comfortable sharing information with you and aren’t threatened by disclosure. You and your HR team must balance the problem of interfering in employees’ private lives against the fallout of a drug dependence you may have ignored.The best way to avoid opioid addiction by your employees is to educate them on the consequences of abusing painkillers. If you become aware of possible opioid abuse in the workplace, attempt to approach the employee in a cordial, non-confrontational manner and offer help and support. Make sure to pay special attention to employees returning to work following injury. (But first consult with your legal counsel to navigate potential complications associated with laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act issues.)
  2. Reexamine Zero-Tolerance Drug Testing Failure Policies 
    An employee who loses a job because of a failed drug test may descend further into the depression that intensifies opioid use and abuse, leading to more drastic outcomes for the employee, including intentional or accidental overdose. To reduce the likelihood of such tragedies, revisit your zero-tolerance drug testing policy.Many employers have recently modified their drug testing policies as a result of a new rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Effective December 1, 2016, OSHA took the position that employers should perform compulsory drug tests after workplace accidents only when there is a reasonable basis to believe the incident or injury was caused by substance impairment and when the drug test will likely determine whether the employee was impaired at the time of the incident or injury (versus a test that shows mere historical drug use).When amending your drug testing policy, you should consider removing provisions that mandate automatic employee termination after a first positive drug test. Instead, you can modify your policy to include mandatory substance abuse counseling for employees who fail drug tests. This not only gives the employee a second chance to get “clean” and rehabilitate the substance dependency but it also provides the individual with an opportunity to obtain much-needed counseling concerning a potentially life-threatening condition. The permitted use of prescription drugs while working must also be clearly explained in the policy.
  3. Consider Heightened Monitoring Of Workers’ Compensation Claims 
    Many workers’ compensation carriers (and even employers) seek to minimize the potential impact of injury and illness claims by finding the most inexpensive treatment option available. Indeed, under the guise of “conservative” treatment, insurance carriers might be inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions rather than more aggressive treatment options such as steroid injections or surgery. This can lead to higher incidence of opioid dependency— and increased tolerance levels in the event of a future surgery—all because effective treatment may have taken a back seat to interim cost.
  4. Reevaluate And Enhance Your Drug Counseling Programs 
    Now is the time to evaluate and improve your drug counseling programs. Questions to address include whether your insurance provider offers substance abuse counseling to employees, whether there are extra costs for this service, and whether your employees are really aware of this important benefit. Providing employees with meaningful counseling about opioid use and addiction may prevent further abuse, and it may save someone’s life.


Although opioid use continues to increase at a disturbing rate, many employers have not effectively addressed this concern in the workplace. While there is no perfect approach or plan, working with legal counsel to take proactive steps and avoid risks to your employees is a good place to start.

Michael V. Abcarian is the managing partner of the Dallas office of Fisher Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm. For over 30 years he has represented Fortune 500 corporations, units of local government, and local business interests in labor and employment matters. He has handled hundreds of lawsuits in federal and state courts with an exceptional success record, including lead counsel defense of complex litigation and nationwide class actions. He can be contacted at mabcarian@fisherphillips.com


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