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Opioids and your workplace

Safety & Codes | December 1, 2019 | By:

A new toolkit from the National Safety Council aims to help employers and employees understand how opioid use affects the workplace—and what to do about it.  

For the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash. The numbers don’t lie—in 2017, more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses. Of those deaths, more than 47,000 involved opioids. More than 2 million Americans suffer from an opioid use disorder (OUD). 

The National Safety Council (NSC) has released a new toolkit that employers can use to address the opioid crisis. NSC is calling on all employers to equip their workplace first aid kits with naloxone, an overdose reversal drug; provide supervisor education around opioid misuse; and include access to treatment options in their employee assistance programs—all elements of a robust drug-free workplace policy. 

The Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit, launched in partnership with medical waste compliance company Stericycle, provides information and resources for supervisors, human resource (HR) professionals, safety professionals and employees. The kit includes sample policies, fact sheets, presentations, safety talks, posters, white papers, reports and videos to implement a workplace program on opioids.

“Two-thirds of American adults with opioid use disorders are in the workforce,” says Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Everyone has a role to play in ending opioid overdose, including employers, who are often on the front lines. Organizations big and small will find life-saving information in this new toolkit—information that not only will help employers protect profits, but most important, their people.”

Impairment on the job 

The opioid overdose crisis is driven by three categories of opioids—prescription painkillers (for example, Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin), heroin and fentanyl. Even when taken as prescribed, opioids can impair both mental and physical functioning. Side effects include sleepiness, nausea, dizziness and slower reaction times. Any of these side effects can cause impairment, posing a hazard to the workplace. 

Employers should have policies in place to manage employees who are being prescribed opioids, including but not limited to providing reasonable accommodation during the duration of the prescription, reminding the employee of resources available (short- or long-term disability, Family Medical Leave Act, etc.), and establishing procedures for employees to return to work or their position after the risk for impairment is gone. 

While it is not their responsibility to diagnose a substance use disorder, supervisors and HR professionals should know how to recognize warning signs and how to refer employees to the appropriate services. Impairment caused by opioids can be difficult to identify because it can look similar to impairment caused by alcohol, other drug use, fatigue and other factors. This is why it is important to have robust workplace impairment policies and procedures that address all types of impairment.

Business and safety concerns

The opioid crisis has clear, defined impacts on employers and employees. It continues to present new, complex situations for employers to navigate. For example:

  • When hiring, it can be difficult to find qualified, skilled workers who can pass drug screens.
  • People with OUD frequently have increased absenteeism and reduced productivity.
  • Rising health care costs. In 2016, large employers in the U.S. covered $2.6 billion on treatment for opioid use disorder and overdose, up from $0.3 billion in 2004. Large employer plans spent $1.1 billion on opioid prescriptions in 2016, a cost that has remained relatively stable since 2004.
  • Impaired employees pose a safety hazard to themselves, their coworkers and their work environment. Safety-sensitive industries have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. 
  • Even when taken as prescribed, opioid painkillers have the capacity to cause impairment—a significant safety risk that increases the chances of workplace incidents, errors and injury, and may affect employees’ ability to commute to and from work. 
  • People who use opioids have a significantly increased risk of car crashes, unsafe driving activities and falls.

The free toolkit may be downloaded at 

SIDEBAR: Key steps for employers 

Workplace impairment is an ongoing occupational health and safety issue. The free Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit can help employers take steps like these:

  • Ensure everyone in the workplace understands how to recognize impairment and what to do in the event of impairment in themselves or others. 
  • Develop policies and procedures that clearly address impairment in the workplace and are consistently enforced.
  • Emphasize that safety is a shared responsibility between employers and employees—it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the workplace safe.

Download the free toolkit at

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