Opioids, or prescription medication such as morphine and oxycodone, are responsible for an estimated $55.7 billion a year in costs related to health care, the workplace and criminal justice, according to a new report.
The report, Optimizing the Abuse-Deterrent Opioids Market, released in January by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also notes that pain-killing opioid medications are the most commonly abused substance in the U.S., and it estimated that 15.7 million people aged 12 or older have used prescription drugs non-medically in the past year.
The epidemic has sparked changes at the state and federal level, including tighter guidelines on prescribing pain pills. But it also raises an uncomfortable question for employers: what happens when employees are found abusing drugs, whether they come forward on their own or fail mandatory drug tests?
Although drug policies have traditionally focused on punishment, experts suggest extending a helping hand instead.
In the midst of this epidemic, here are some tips on how employers can maintain a drug-free work environment and create policies to help employees.
Establish a drug-screening policy
First, there are several drug-screening options employers can implement.
They can do post-offer/pre-employment drug screening, post-accident drug testing or random testing, according to Karen Young, president of HR Resolutions LLC in Lower Paxton Township.
There is also reasonable suspicion drug testing, but it requires a good deal of supervisor training to carry out.
The process includes documenting observations by two members of management and relaying several examples to the employee demonstrating the employer’s reasonable suspicion.
At that time, the employer can request the employee be drug tested, but companies should not let employees drive themselves to the test.
“If you think they are under the influence, they should not be operating a vehicle,” Young said.
If the reasonable suspicion process is handled improperly, an employer could end up unable to terminate somebody that has tested positive, Young said.
So, regardless of why the drug test was done, what can you do if an employee tests positive?
Give employees options
If an employee fails a drug test and they are in a safety-sensitive position, the employer should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drug use, Young said.
If the employee comes forward about their addiction without being drug tested, Young advises working with them.
She suggested establishing an employee-assistance program or having a company policy that allows for 30 days of unpaid leave of absence. Giving employees up to 30 days off without pay would hold their jobs with the understanding that they are going to seek help.
“It allows me the opportunity to help, and it puts some responsibility on them as well,” Young said.
It helps more than the employee. Studies have shown that employers with successful substance abuse programs in place have seen improvements in morale and productivity, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc.
Programs that address substance abuse in the workplace also decrease absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover and theft, the council said.
When it comes to opioids specifically, it is important to understand that once someone is addicted to an opioid of any kind, it changes their brain chemistry, according to Peter Schorr, president and CEO for Retreat at Lancaster County.
It is one of the few drugs that creates a strong physical addiction, Schorr said.
“Keep in mind that they’re sick just like a diabetic is sick,” Schorr said. “There are remedies to fix it, so hopefully give them that opportunity. They have to go to treatment.”
What are local companies doing?
Locally, companies have a variety of different drug policies in place.
East Lampeter Township-based High Companies has an employee assistance program, which it offers to employees and their family members for drug-related issues, according to Darryl P. Gordon, vice president of human resource services.
In addition to its employee assistance program, High offers short-term disability with paid time off as long as the medical provider or approved rehabilitation center completes the appropriate documents to support care for the employee, Gordon said.
The Lancaster County company does every type of drug screening that Young mentioned – pre-placement drug screening, drug and alcohol testing in the event of an accident or near miss on the job, random drug and alcohol screenings for safety-sensitive positions, and reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol testing if there is evidence of impairment or use on the job.
High currently employs more than 2,000 people between its several divisions including High Construction, High Concrete and High Steel.
Pittsburgh-based Massaro Construction Group employs about 25 people at its York County location.
The company offers an employee assistance program for any employee who needs help with substance abuse. It is operated through Gateway, an Allegheny County-based rehabilitation center. The program is inexpensive, and used infrequently by employees, according to CEO Joe Massaro.
Massaro is on the board at Gateway, and because of his education on addiction, he strives to find a balance between running his business while understanding that when it comes to employees, everybody has story.
“I have incredible respect for people who are afflicted by addictive diseases and are recovering,” Massaro said.
You can read more about addiction in the workplace in the Business Journal’s April 1 edition.