Opioids' effect on the workplace

We've all heard the stories of opioid abuse and addiction among celebrities, such as Rush Limbaugh, Prince, Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger. But addiction to these powerful painkillers can hit much closer to home—a Harvard School of Public Health report shows at least two in five Americans say they personally know someone who has abused prescription painkillers during the past five years. And it is not uncommon for physicians to prescribe opioids to those in the construction industry to help relieve chronic pain.

Opioids include oxycodone (trade name OxyContin); hydrocodone (trade name Vicodin); codeine, morphine, fentanyl and heroin.

The National Safety Council warns opioids may cause impairment and "increase the risk of workplace incidents, errors and injury even when taken as prescribed." In addition, opioids can increase workers' compensation costs and lengthen recovery time after injuries, increasing the amount of lost work time.

According to Bloomberg BNA, a 2011 Pain Medicine study determined prescription opioid abuse can cause more than $25 billion in lost workplace productivity in the U.S.

These statistics make it clear one or more of your employees may have been prescribed an opioid and may be at risk for addiction. And because employees are not obligated to disclose such information, you, as an employer, should determine the best way to proceed.

No doubt you have a workplace policy in place that states disciplinary action will be taken if an employee exhibits signs of impairment caused by a substance. If an employee appears impaired, your best bet is to document the impairment strictly based on observations.

In a Bloomberg BNA article authored by Rebecca J. Bernhard, a partner with New York-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney, and Jack Sullivan, a senior associate with Dorsey & Whitney, the attorneys state: "The statement 'He appeared under the influence' is not legally useful whereas observations such as 'his voice was slow and slurred' or 'her eyes were glassy' are as they are factual and dispassionate."

If your workplace policies allow for drug testing, be sure to remain mindful of Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements regarding anti-retaliation and the Americans with Disabilities Act's privacy requirements. And, clearly, consult counsel before moving forward with potential substance-abuse disciplinary actions.

Ambika Puniani Bailey is editor of Professional Roofing and NRCA's vice president of communications and production.


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