Drugs at Work:
What Employers Need to Know


Nearly 21 million Americans are living with substance use disorder, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. That's more than the total number of people living with of cancer and more than the population of the state of New York.

Three-quarters of those struggling with addiction to alcohol, pain medication, marijuana and other substances are employed. Workers with substance use disorders miss nearly 50% more work days than their peers – up to six weeks annually – and absenteeism leads to losses in productivity.

While the Surgeon General reports substance use disorders cost the U.S. economy more than $400 billion a year, employers don't seem to recognize the scope of the problem. In a National Safety Council survey, 39% of employers viewed prescription drug use as a threat to safety and just 24% said it is a problem, even though seven in 10 companies reported issues ranging from absenteeism to overdose.

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What Employers Told Us

Construction, entertainment, recreation and food service sectors have twice the national average of employees with substance use disorders. NSC also found:

  • Industries dominated by women or older adults had a two-thirds lower rate of substance abuse
  • Industries that have higher numbers of workers with alcohol use disorders also had more illicit drug, pain medication and marijuana use disorders
  • Employers were most concerned about the costs of benefits (95%), the ability to hire qualified workers (93%) and the costs of workers' compensation (84%) – but less concerned over drug misuse (67%) and illegal drug sale or use (61%)
  • Workers in recovery have lower turnover rates and are less likely to miss work days, less likely to be hospitalized and have fewer doctor visits

How Employers Can Make a Difference

NSC found healthcare costs for employees who misuse or abuse prescription drugs are three times higher than for an average employee. Employers can take simple steps to protect themselves and their employees:

  • Recognize prescription drugs impact the bottom line
  • Enact strong company drug policies
  • Expand drug panel testing to include opioids
  • Train supervisors and employees to spot the first signs of drug misuse
  • Treat substance abuse as a disease
  • Leverage employee assistance programs to help employees return to work

The annual cost of untreated substance use disorder ranges from $2,600 per employee in agriculture to more than $13,000 per employee in information and communications.

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'My Brother was Injured at Work, But He Overdosed at Home'

In the NSC report, Prescription Pain Medications: A Fatal Cure for Injured Workers, Rex tells the story of his brother's death. Bill was injured at work. He died at home of an accidental methadone overdose in July 2006.

Since then, Rex has worked to focus attention on the dangers associated with taking methadone and other opioids. He pushes for drug policy changes in the workplace because he believes employers can do more to inform and protect their employees.

"My brother was injured at work, but he overdosed at home," Rex said. "So, obviously, this isn't a concern isolated to the workplace."

Still, he believes employers can do more.

"Organizations need to get information out to their employees and help employees understand the gravity of prescription drug use," Rex said. "It's a life or death situation."

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Federal Workplace Drug Testing Guidelines

The mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing were revised. Some private sector employers also use the federal guidelines. Find out what it means for you.

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Make Your Workplace Opioid Free

Employee use of prescription painkillers threatens employees' safety and your bottom line.

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NSC Speakers Bureau

The National Safety Council works with three physicians who are available to talk to your organization about prescription drug misuse.

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