The July 1 death of Los Angeles Angels baseball player Tyler Skaggs shocked the sports world. The 27-year old pitcher was found dead in his Dallas-area hotel room while his team was in town to play a series against the Texas Rangers. He last pitched just two days before, on June 29, against the Oakland Athletics.

In the weeks since his tragic passing, speculation circulated regarding the cause of Skaggs’ untimely death. What could lead to the sudden death of a world-class athlete who appeared to be in great health and had already won 7 games in 2019, the most among the Angels’ pitching staff? That question was answered last week when an autopsy revealed that Skaggs tragically died due to the consumption of a deadly mixture of alcohol and the opioid painkillers oxycodone and fentanyl. This conclusion surprised the Angels team, including manager Brad Ausmus, who appeared blindsided by the news. Many were left wondering why an athlete of Skaggs’ stature, both physically and financially, could gain dependency on opioids to relieve pain.

Unfortunately, accidental overdoses like Skaggs’ occur more often than many believe. Over 70,000 Americans may have died in 2017 as the result of a drug-related overdose, with over 47,000 of those deaths being directly linked to opioid use. This number continues to increase with no end in sight, as the use of prescription opioids to relieve pain has reached staggering levels. In 2012, more than 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids. Although that number has plateaued, more than 17% of all Americans still had a prescription for an opioid in 2017. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and deaths from opioid use have exceeded the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam war.

Prescription Drug Use Often Leads To Heroin Addiction

Opioids, including those found in Skaggs’ system, may be found in any medicine cabinet. This group of drugs includes the regularly prescribed painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl. These drugs interact with opioid reactors on nerve centers in the brain to create a pleasurable experience and relieve pain. Due to the relief they experience, consumers of these drugs often become dependent upon them.

Once addicted, individuals may turn to heroin, which, although illegal, is often a cheaper and more accessible opioid. Studies show that in 2016, 948,000 Americans reported using heroin, and 1.7 million had a substance abuse disorder related to prescription opioid use, including 652,000 heroin addicts.

Lessons for Employers

The growing opioid epidemic, the increasing dependency on prescription drugs by individuals like Skaggs, and its impact on employee behavior and health creates unique challenges for employers. Although no perfect response is available, employers should revisit their drug testing and employee assistance counseling programs in order to keep their employees and workplace safe. A focus on education, prevention, and counseling may help minimize the impact of opioid use on the workplace.

When formulating your plan to address opioid use, you should consider the following:

    1. Remember This Epidemic Impacts All Walks Of Life

      When evaluating how to address opioid use in the workplace, don’t focus your efforts solely on one group of employees. Some employers may believe that only blue-collar or industrial workers are susceptible to opioid abuse. As Skaggs’ death demonstrates, opioid dependency can happen to anyone, even those with high salaries or white-collar positions. Have measures in place to ensure that managers and other professional employees are also considered when developing your opioid related policies. Don’t assume that employees with low-risk jobs are not prone to opioid addiction.

    2. Create An Environment Where Employees Are More Likely To Disclose Dependency

      One of the fastest growing challenges with respect to workplace safety is the rise of mental illness. For decades, employees have been afraid to let their employers know of mental illness issues in fear of embarrassment or being shunned or mocked by coworkers. Mental illness can often lead to dependency, depression, and burnout. All of these events significantly impact employee safety and performance.

      Given the recent rise of mental illness and opioid dependency, you should consider encouraging employees to tell you when they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers. This starts by creating a workplace environment conducive to the free exchange of information. This is an evolving area of human resources and business management; you must balance the concern of being viewed as an employer who attempts to invade employees’ private home life versus later dealing with an employee who quits, overdoses, or creates a safety concern due to an addiction you may have ignored.

      The key to preventing opioid addiction is educating employees on the potential harmful impacts of abusing painkillers. If you become aware of an employee’s potential abuse of opioids, attempt to approach the employee in a cordial, non-confrontational manner to offer assistance with this condition. Pay special attention to employees returning to work after an injury. Consult your legal counsel on navigating any potential ADA or HIPAA issues. Addressing these issues early may help prevent a larger issue later.

    3. Reconsider Zero Tolerance Drug Testing Failure Policies

      An employee who loses their job because they fail a drug test may fall further into the depression often caused by opioid use. Unemployment may lead to more drastic outcomes for the employee, including intentional or accidental overdose. In order to avoid such a tragedy, you should revisit your zero tolerance drug testing policy.

      In light of the opioid epidemic, you should think seriously about removing any provision requiring the automatic termination of the employee after the first positive drug test. Instead, you can amend your policy to include required counseling for employees who fail drug tests. This not only gives the employee a second chance to become “clean” and attempt to end their dependency, it also provides them with an opportunity to obtain much-needed education and counseling on their condition. The permitted use of prescription drug use while working at the worksite must also be clearly explained in the policy.

      Now is the time to evaluate and enhance your drug counseling programs. Does your insurance provider offer drug counseling to employees? Is there an extra cost for this service? Are employees aware of this amenity? Providing employees robust counseling on opioid use and addiction may prevent further use from occurring.

Conclusion

Opioid use continues to increase at an alarming rate and yet many employers have not addressed this concern in their policies and programs. The high-profile death of Tyler Skaggs is a tragic reminder to all of us that opioid use is still prevalent and can impact anyone. Use this unfortunate incident as an opportunity to refine your drug testing and counseling policies. Although no perfect plan is currently available, you should begin working with counsel to take proactive steps to avoid risks to employees.