employee benefits

Combatting Prescription Drug Abuse at Work

Now that the prescription drug epidemic has spread to the workplace, what can employers legally do or say to an employee with a prescription drug problem?



When the news hit Utah about Max Hall being arrested for shop lifting in August of 2014, it may have shook Cougar fans and satiated Ute fans...at first. But the unnerving news about his severe drug addiction that started from pain killers that were meant to relieve him from concussions and shoulder surgeries is, unfortunately, just another example of opioid painkillers destroying lives. The prescription drug epidemic has now spread to the workplace, with employers caught in the middle of a prescription opioid crisis. After all, what can they legally do or say to an employee with a prescription drug problem?

The epidemic is real

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 28,000 people nationwide died in 2014 from opioids, half of which were overdose deaths from prescriptions. That means drug overdoses (think OxyContin and Percocet) now exceed car crashes in unintentional death cases in the U.S. The CDC reported that from 1999 to 2014, “The amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report…78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.” Although the CDC has tried to combat this issue by proposing new prescribing guidelines, here is what employers can do to help keep their workplace safe.

What employers SHOULD do

  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’s taking that may impair his work, the supervisor needs to learn enough to determine if a reasonable accommodation must be made. If the 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.

Take away

Become a proactive employer in fighting the prescription painkiller epidemic. 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 us.

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