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Local experts to employers: Help us fight the opioid pain pill, heroin epidemic

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Lancaster's District Attorney Craig Stedman spoke to members of the business community who attended a Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry event last week.  The discussion focused on fighting the opioid pain pill and heroin epidemic.
Lancaster's District Attorney Craig Stedman spoke to members of the business community who attended a Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry event last week. The discussion focused on fighting the opioid pain pill and heroin epidemic. - (Photo / )

It might be considered taboo to talk about drug addiction at work, but employers need to start, local experts say.

Because of how far-reaching the opioid epidemic has gotten in Pennsylvania, "You know somebody right now" who is using, Lancaster’s District Attorney Craig Stedman said to employers on Friday. "It’s that prevalent."

Think about employees whose behavior suddenly changes, who are sluggish or who constantly have dilated pupils. "You can literally save somebody's life here by talking to them," Stedman said.

Stedman and a panel of experts, from providers to police officers, spoke to members of the business community who attended a Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry event last week.

About 4 percent to 8 percent of employees in any given business are likely addicted to drugs, said Chuck Mazzitti, owner of a Harrisburg-based substance use therapy provider for the midstate, Mazzitti & Sullivan EAP Services Inc. He added that people struggling with addiction function at about 75 percent productivity.

That is costing employers about 25 percent of their salary, Mazzitti estimated.

Money aside, people addicted to opioid pain pills and heroin are dying at record numbers – Pennsylvania has the third highest mortality rate in the country, Stedman said – and the public health crisis is straining emergency medical services, police departments and hospitals across the region.

Yet the often overlooked community members who likely have the most power to make someone choose treatment over drug use are employers, Mazzitti said.

"This is absolutely a crisis, and businesses need to be at the forefront of dealing with this," Mazitti said.

Although people in the throes of addiction might ignore pressure from their family members, physicians or friends, they are less likely to ignore their employers because they need money, and their jobs are tied to their identities, Mazzitti said.

"Guess who has the most leverage to get people into treatment?" Mazzitti said. "Their employers."

Mazzitti and other panelists outlined on Friday four things employers should know about the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania:

Understand how addiction affects the brain

Think about the joy you get from hugging you mom, or smelling a turkey cooking on Thanksgiving.

People addicted to drugs are no longer satisfied by those simple pleasures, according to Dr. Michael Reihart, medical director at Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine.

Opioid users develop tolerance to the drug over time, which is why they start to use more and more. Eventually the "pleasure center" of their brain only responds to the pleasure of drugs, Reihart said.

Cover treatment options for employees

Make sure you have a solid drug-free workplace policy, Mazitti said. The policy should include drug testing as well as an employee assistance program that can evaluate employees and guide them to the help they need.

The policy should also include an intensive case management component, according to a list provided to employers by Mazitti titled, "What businesses can do to deal with opioid abuse."

Related: Best Practices to keep your business drug free

Pay attention to employee behavior

Is an employee often calling in sick, or showing up late for work? Are you noticing extreme changes in their behavior, or are they taking frequent bathroom trips? Is their personal hygiene declining, or are they wearing long sleeves in the summer?

These could all be signs of drug use, according to information provided by Mazitti, and it's important that managers know how to approach employees about the subject.

Related: A window on addiction in the workplace

Raise awareness

Raise awareness on the signs and symptoms of drug abuse, and make sure all managers and employees know their options for getting help.

That could include placing signs throughout the building or meeting with employees, Mazitti said.

"The biggest weapon against this is awareness," Stedman added.

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