How Business Leaders Can Address the Opioid Crisis in the Workplace

A man is struggling

An employee struggling with opioids is prone to underperform, make mistakes, pose a safety risk and not even show up for work.

Opioid misuse doesn't stop at the door of the business. Statistical evidence suggests there could be an opioid crisis in the workplace.

Sixty percent of businesses experienced at least one workplace issue arising from prescription opioid drug misuse or abuse, according to the National Business Group on Health (NBGH). And the National Survey of Drug Use and Health discovered that 66 percent of adults who acknowledged using illicit opioids were employed.

Data show that employees struggling with opioids are more prone to making mistakes, creating safety risks and not showing up for work. For example, a recent study published by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation found that diminished productivity and absenteeism caused by opioid misuse are reducing the Massachusetts economy by $2.5 billion annually.

Additional studies stress the need for HR leaders to ensure their organizations' drug policies and testing procedures handle opioid misuse and abuse in a way that jibes with the law. Opioid abuse will only continue to threaten the bottom line, and HR should move swiftly to make sure their organizations are operating within the bounds of compliance and getting employees the help they need.

Implementing Policies and Testing Within the Law

As reported by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the Department of Transportation requires DOT-regulated employers to conduct opioid testing, a measure that applies to truck drivers, aviation industry workers and railroad employees. For organizations that fall outside of DOT's purview with positions that require safety regulations — including machine operators and construction workers — the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association recommends testing for opioids in a "prudent way" to limit liabilities and risks.

The association's executive director told SHRM that employers can test employees specifically for opioids as long as they:

  • Follow state drug testing laws
  • Have an independent medical officer review positive test results to ensure that the employer is only informed about illegal drug use (employees should be able to show the medical officer prescriptions for any drugs that appear in test results)
  • Clarify in their business policies which substances are prohibited, including unprescribed opioids

Many legal experts recommend that organizations' drug policy specifics should go beyond opioids. For example, many employers are wrestling with how to handle employees using marijuana. Some states only allow medicinal use, while others permit recreational use. This can create an area of legal uncertainty for employers, especially since federal law prohibits both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana. For this reason, Stacy Williams, a compliance counsel representative for ADP, recommends that HR leaders work with legal counsel when crafting and adjusting drug policies or handling individual employee cases.

The National Safety Council offers a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers create prescription drug policies and manage opioid use. Still, legal help remains critical because, as an employment law expert wrote in HR Daily Advisor, rushing to discipline an employee who lawfully uses opioids without further inquiry may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees under the influence of illegal drugs aren't entitled to ADA protection, but those who use prescribed opioids to treat a condition are protected unless they pose a threat to themselves or others, and provided they are able to perform the essential functions of the job.

Setting a Tone Through Education and Outreach

Dealing with the opioid crisis in the workplace is a task that stretches beyond policy-making — it also includes outreach, communication and education. NBGH recommends that HR leaders work with their organizations' health plans and pharmacy benefits managers to make sure they're following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines regarding prescribed opioids.

The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have also created a "framework" examining workplace factors that could cause prescription opioid use to evolve into prescription opioid abuse. This framework offers guidance on developing the methods to detect potent opioids in the workplace and how to work directly with employees to keep workplaces free of drug misuse and abuse.

"The opioid crisis is one of the most pressing public health challenges our nation faces today," says NIOSH Director John Howard. "And the workplace is not immune."

Want to learn more? Listen to ADP's webinar, "Workplace Compliance Spotlight: Hot Employment Law Topics," available on demand.