Pain Killers and Heroin in the Workplace

As an employer, how do you know if an employee is taking prescribed pain killers at work and may be addicted? What happens if the prescription for the medication has expired and now the employee is buying illegally obtained medication or even worse, has substituted heroin for the similar effect?

In a combined years report from 2013 and 2014 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) averaged approximately 10.7 million or so people 12 years and older misused prescription pain relievers in those years. Most of the people surveyed stated they obtained the pain killers from someone they personally had a relationship with, but others bought the drugs illegally from drug dealers or multiple doctors.

In early February several news outlets reported on hundreds of overdoses in short amounts of time from opiates; Louisville had 151 overdoses in only 4 days and a small county in Ohio had 14 people die over a weekend. By the way, people don’t usually overdose from an individual under a doctor‘s care of prescribed medication, they die from the drug itself and the addiction to that drug. With Heroin, the person is either injecting, smoking or snorting the drug and the emergency rooms throughout the country are reporting the number of deaths associated with an overdose has passed those who historically end up there by using cocaine.

Impact on Employers

Employees who are found to be addicted to opiates has two areas of concern while they are working; one is they may be in some stage of a withdrawal and the other is they are impaired and may fall asleep in their car while on a break, stare blankly into space or nod off briefly at their workspace, and worse, pass out in the restroom after use. If the employee is going through a withdrawal the symptoms are similar to an allergy with a runny nose or watery eyes, irritable, upset stomach, sweating without the heat being the cause, shaking or just appearing to have an overall bad day at work.

In most studies related to workplace employees with a substance abuse problem, the percentage of those who use while at work or are impaired at work is 10-12% of the workforce. There are some industries that are more affected than others and this may not reflect a impairment rate 100% of the time but still is a high amount of workers depending upon the size of your workforce. Most employers cover these issues of substance abuse in their company policies but you, the manager, supervisor or agent of the business still has the right to address potential behavior and performance problems affecting the business especially if it is suspected the employee may have a problem with substance abuse, even if it’s to simply ask them if they need help.

A Growing Problem

One of the significant problems with opiates is that the body, over time, builds up a tolerance to the medication and starts the attraction towards taking more of the medication to feel the same as they did when they first took the drug causing the person to become susceptible to addiction.

Another dangerous concoction is Fentanyl which has been around since the 1970’s in medical practices but is used illegally in conjunction with other illicit drugs and has been the result of contributing to over 308 deaths alone in 2016 in Delaware. It is sometimes mixed with cocaine and heroin and is 50 times more potent than heroin itself. An opiate overdose further causes the user to lose unconsciousness and eventually stops breathing. Any combination of these illicit drugs, prescribed medications and even alcohol will increase the symptoms leading to an overdose and usually an unintended death; just look to the Stars who lost their lives in the past few years.

It’s sad to think, that it can typically start with a workplace injury and a doctor’s prescription but can quickly take a fatal turn. The abuse can further become just an addiction, that if gone without an intervention can result in others suffering too and create a dangerous safety nightmare in the workplace.