The growing opioid epidemic and its impact on employee behavior and health creates unique challenges for employers. Although no perfect response is available, now is the time for employers to rethink their drug testing and counseling programs in order to keep their employees and workplace safe. A focus on education, prevention, and counseling may help minimize the impact of opioid use in the workplace. Given the recent rise of opioid use, employers should consider encouraging employees to tell you when they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers. This starts by creating a workplace environment conducive to the free exchange of information.
How can I do that?
1. Education: The key to preventing opioid addiction is educating employees on the potential harmful impacts of abusing painkillers. Set up training sessions for your employees about recognizing opioid abuse and the dangers of prescription painkillers. Addressing these issues early may help prevent a larger issue later.
2. Reconsider Zero Tolerance Drug Testing Failure Policies : An employee who loses his or her job because they fail a drug test may fall further into the depression often caused by opioid use. Unemployment may lead to more drastic outcomes for the employee, including intentional or accidental overdose. In order to avoid such a tragedy, employers should revisit their zero tolerance drug testing policy. Many employers are modifying their drug testing policy due to OSHA’s recent new rule on this topic. Effective December 1, 2016, OSHA’s new rule requires employers to drug test after a workplace accident only when you have a reasonable basis to believe that the incident or injury was likely to have been caused by the employee’s impairment, and that the drug test will determine whether the employee was impaired at the time of the incident or injury (versus a test that shows mere historical drug use). When modifying their drug testing policy, and in light of the opioid epidemic, employers should think seriously about removing any provision requiring the automatic termination of the employee after the first positive drug test. Instead, employers can amend the policy to include required counseling for employees who fail drug tests. This not only gives the employee a second chance to become “clean” and attempt to end their dependency, it also provides the employee with an opportunity to obtain much needed education and counseling on their condition. The permitted use of prescription drug use while working at the worksite must also be clearly explained in the policy.
3. Consider Enhanced Monitoring of Workers’ Compensation Claims: Many workers’ compensation carriers (and even employers) often seek to minimize the potential impact of workers’ compensation claims by finding the most inexpensive treatment option possible. Indeed, under the guise of “conservative” treatment, insurance carriers may be more inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions to “treat” an on-the-job injury versus considering more aggressive treatment options (i.e., steroid injections, surgical intervention, etc.) in the first instance (even when medical providers recommend more aggressive treatment). As such, there can be a higher incident of dependency – and increased tolerance levels in the event of a future surgery – simply in the name of reducing the financial impact of a workers’ compensation claim. Employers should monitor these trends, and even their medical providers, and evaluate the care provided to injured workers.
4. Revisit and Enhance Drug Counseling Programs: Now is the time for employers to evaluate and enhance their drug counseling programs. Does your insurance provider offer drug counseling to employees? Is there an extra cost for this service? Are employees aware of this amenity? If you become aware of an employee’s potential abuse of opioids, attempt to approach the employee in a cordial, non-confrontational manner to offer assistance with this condition. Pay special attention to employees returning to work after an injury. Consult your counsel on navigating any potential ADA or HIPAA issues. Providing employees robust counseling on opioid use and addiction may prevent further use from occurring.