Combatting Prescription Drug Abuse at Work

The workplace is experiencing a steady uptick in workers with a prescription drug addiction. What can (and should) employers do?



If you have never experienced a drug addiction, chances are you may know or have worked with someone who has.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 9% of all employed adults, or 13.6 million workers, currently have a substance use disorder, while another 13.3 million workers report they are in recovery or have recovered from a former addiction. This means the workplace is an important place to address drug addiction.

The epidemic is real

In 2022, the (CDC) reported more than 100,000 people nationwide died from drug overdose deaths, of which nearly 80,000 involved opioids. To put things into perspective, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2022. This means drug overdoses more than doubled fatal car crashes in 2022 for unintentional death cases in the U.S.

Despite the CDC's Opioid Prescribing Guideline recommendations, the rates of prescribing opioids vary across the country and are inconsistent from medical specialties and patient demographics. In fact, prescription opioids remain the most commonly misused prescription drug in the U.S. (Source: CDC)

While it feels like an uphill battle, here is what employers can do to help keep their workplace safe.

What employers can do to combat prescription drug abuse

1. Update employee handbook

Every workplace should have a drug and alcohol abuse policy in their employee handbook. Within that policy should be a prescription drug abuse provision that says anyone working in a safety-sensitive position (machine operator, construction worker, truck/bus driver, etc.) must notify their manager if they are taking any over-the-counter or prescription medication that may impair their ability to safely perform their job.

2. Focus on performance

Oftentimes drug addiction appears similar to sleep problems or other health conditions. If an employee falls asleep on the job, address the performance issue for what it is; DON’T jump to conclusions. Falsely accusing someone of a drug abuse problem is in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

3. Determine if a reasonable accommodation should be made

Similar to diabetes or any other illness, prescription drug addiction is protected under the ADA. If an employee notifies his supervisor of a medication he is taking that may impair his work, the supervisor needs to learn enough to determine if a reasonable accommodation must be made.

When a worker poses any direct threat to his safety or health by maintaining his same work duties while under the medication, he may need to have his duties modified.

How employers can become a recovery-supportive workplace

With so many workers affected by drug use, the CDC has outlined ways your workplace can avoid causing or prolonging a substance use disorder. They include:

  • Expanding employment opportunities for people in or seeking recovery;
  • Facilitating help-seeking among employees with a substance use disorder (SUD);
  • Ensuring access to needed services, including treatment, recovery support, and mutual aid;
  • Informing employees in recovery that they may have the right to reasonable accommodations and other protections that can help them keep their jobs;
  • Reducing the risk of substance misuse and disorders through education and steps to prevent injury in the workplace;
  • Educating all levels of the organization on drug abuse and recovery, working to reduce stigma and misunderstanding; and,
  • Ensuring that prospective and current employees understand that the employer is recovery-ready and familiar with relevant policies and resources.
For more information on resources and tips on lowering barriers for workers with an addiction or seeking help, please visit:

Take away

Become a proactive employer in fighting the prescription painkiller epidemic and being supportive of workers fighting or maintaining their recovery from a drug use problem.

Educate employees about the risks of prescription opioid painkillers. Encourage them to consult with their physician in private about different medication alternatives that may be more suitable. Also, be sure to train your managers on recognizing the typical signs of impairment, your own drug and alcohol abuse policy, and understanding the ADA.

For more tips and information, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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