Prescription opioid abuse has been a major health problem in the United States for the last 25 years and is now in the news almost daily. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that more than $100 billion in workplace losses can be attributed to accidents, lost productivity and other problems related to alcohol and drug abuse. According to studies, as many as 15 percent of all workers in the construction industry abuse them. As a result, worker compensation claims and drug-overdose rates are soaring. 


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines prescription opioids as medications used to treat moderate-to-severe pain. Doctors prescribe these drugs to patients after surgery or injury, or to patients diagnosed with cancer or some other chronic health condition. Dentists also prescribe these drugs after oral surgeries or root canals. The most common prescription opioids include codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine (Kadian), and oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet), in order of increasing strength.


When these drugs are used as intended, they can greatly reduce the intensity of pain. However, they can also cause mental confusion, nausea, drowsiness and constipation, and they can even affect breathing. 


Opioid use can lead to dependence or addiction, which typically happens to individuals attempting to cope with pain stemming from injuries or ailments affecting three or more areas of the body.


Construction workers are particularly at risk because their work is physically demanding and calls for a high level of productivity. Failure to perform could mean job loss. As a result, the dangers associated with drug use on the job, whether caused by the need to relieve pain or from an addiction, are ignored. Unfortunately, this is true even when the worker under the influence is around extreme job hazards or operates heavy machinery, vehicles and other dangerous equipment.


Drug screening is one option to combat opioid use in the workplace. It is not uncommon for 25 to 35 percent of pre-employment drug tests in the construction industry to come up positive, according to the International Risk Management Institute, yet more staggering is that as many as 5 percent of employees still test positive for drugs even when they know in advance that they are going to be tested. Employers should pay attention to potential drug use because, in the event of an incident, employers face liability.


Consider this: A construction worker was operating an excavator during a demolition project and failed to abide by the proper safety precautions. The worker killed six people. Toxicology reports determined the worker had codeine and marijuana in his system at the time of the incident. The employee had also been previously cited numerous times for safety violations. The worker was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. The owner of the construction company was also culpable for the accident and facing serious charges. The owner took his own life.


This is not an isolated incident. Employers need to educate themselves and their workers on drug screening policies. They can, and should, reach out to their insurance provider for workers’ compensation policies to find out what programs they might have for addressing opioid abuse. The insurance company may have some recommendations for minimizing risk and lowering premiums.


It is impossible to completely prevent opioid drug abuse in the workplace or elsewhere. However, steps can be taken to minimize the risk. Abuse-prevention methods include educating employees on what different prescription opioids do, how potent they are and how the user can become addicted.


Additionally, providing social support networks of colleagues for injured workers can reduce the likelihood of abuse. In fact, research has indicated that strong social networks can result in a lower number of lost workdays and decreased wage loss for workers. They also lead to greater overall company morale.


In the event that opioid dependency or abuse becomes a problem, providing avenues for counseling and treatment can be extremely helpful in resolving the situation. Drug addiction is a disease, and it can be treated with behavioral modification and pharmacological interventions. Behavioral treatments help combat cravings. Pharmacological interventions use addiction medications to help wean addicts off of opioids. This is imperative because it is estimated that 70 percent or more of heroin users started with prescription opioid use. These treatments combined with counseling have the best results in curbing dependency.


Many of the preventative strategies used on prescription opioid abuse can also be applied to alcohol abuse and use of other drugs as well. For more information, visit www.osha.gov.