Workplace Solutions Needed to Combat the Rise of Opioid Use

Comprehensive NSC research article highlights need for employer support to tackle opioid-related injuries and deaths.

Emily Prentice, MPH, CPH, ATC
August 23, 2021

Since the 1990s, drug overdose fatalities have continued to rise, and the workplace is not immune. This is particularly true for opioid-related overdose fatalities following the increased prescribing of prescription opioids. 

2020 saw the largest annual increase in overdose deaths in 50 years, with three-quarters being attributed to opioids. Furthermore, a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states unintentional overdose deaths in the workplace increased by 24% each year from 2011 to 2018, and 2019 saw the highest recorded number since 2011. The BLS report also states over half of the fatal unintentional overdoses involved workers ages 25 to 44, demonstrating the strong need for workplaces to better address the opioid epidemic and employee use of other substances. This will become especially important as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic unravel over time.

Impaired employees present safety hazards to themselves and colleagues, especially if they are in a safety-sensitive position. Historically, safety-sensitive industries have been heavily impacted by the opioid crisis. Additionally, workplace musculoskeletal injuries, specifically injuries of the back, contribute greatly to work-related disorders resulting in days away from work. Workplace musculoskeletal injuries and disorders also present a clear pathway to receiving opioid prescriptions for pain control.

Our article, Comprehensive Workplace Policies and Practices Regarding Employee Opioid Use, recently was published in the peer-reviewed journal New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. In our article, we state a need for more data sources, tools and other resources within the workplace that focus on prevention, treatment and recovery to address opioid-related injuries and fatalities. We highlight the Substance Use Cost Calculator, created by NSC and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, and the NSC Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit – tools that can be used by employers to address the opioid crisis. 

The Substance Use Cost Calculator demonstrates the cost of workplace substance use, as well as the savings that accompany supporting workers in recovery, by retrospective analysis using the organization's location, size and industry. The Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit guides employers through better understanding of the risks of opioid use and provides guidance for addressing opioids in the workplace.

Our article also addresses intersecting topic areas that have crossed the opioid epidemic, specifically COVID-19, mental health, and the associated impacts on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) populations. The short-term impacts of the pandemic are triggering increased feelings of anxiety and depression, and presenting a large uptick in opioid overdoses, particularly as employees who were at a greater risk of opioid use disorder also were at a greater risk of viral exposure.

Furthermore, we express the need to strengthen existing prevention interventions, treatment access and recovery initiatives. Important features stressed in the article are to expand employee assistance programs (EAPs) to provide confidential and barrier-free services, medical insurance options to provide equal representation of non-opioid medications for pain control, ensure coverage of evidence-based treatment and medication options, and support employees in recovery as part of a positive workplace culture.

Emily Prentice, MPH, CPH, ATC

Emily Prentice, MPH, CPH, ATC, is a public health researcher with a background in injury prevention, safety and occupational and environmental health. She is the senior research associate for the MSD Solutions Lab at the National Safety Council.

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