During the Women’s 500-Meter Speed Skating Semifinals, British Olympian Elise Christie crashed out of competition after clipping another skater during the race. While Christie escaped the fall with no broken bones, she sustained injuries that call into question her physical readiness to compete in other events at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. Injuries are commonplace in sports, so Christie’s fall, while devastating to her hopes of ascending the Olympic podium, was not altogether unimaginable.

But for many employees throughout the country, the risk of physical injury also “comes with the job.” When injuries do occur, individuals will frequently receive prescription medication to manage pain.

In 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved OxyContin for prescription use. Since that time, the United States has witnessed a proliferation in the use, and abuse, of opioids. While efforts are being made at the national, state, and local levels to combat the addiction crisis, coverage for prescription pain medications continues to be an essential part of employee healthcare benefit packages.

Beyond just being a national health crisis, opioid abuse has had a tremendous impact on the labor force generally, as well as workplaces around the country. It also can drive up the costs of health insurance plans. No company, whether big or small, is immune from the risks and negative consequences of addiction.

Excessive use of these powerful and highly addictive drugs increases the frequency of errors and injury in the workplace. Relatedly, prescription painkillers have been found to increase workers’ compensation costs, increase the length of worker disability, and increase work time lost. Further, opioid prescription abuse has significantly increased the use of emergency room services, hospitalizations and other medical costs.

So, what can employers do to curb the effects of addiction on their businesses, and ensure that employees are receiving the support they need to combat this disease?

  1. Adopt a Clear, Written Policy. Work with legal counsel and the human resources department to ensure that the company’s Drug-Free Workplace Policy reflects all federal and state-specific guidelines.
  2. Educate Employees. Encourage employees to discuss the effects of opioid painkillers with their prescribing physician, and understand the risks associated with prescription medications.
  3. Train Supervisors and Managers. Educate supervisors and managers on the potential signs of impairment. Leadership teams should also be well-versed in the company’s Drug-Free Workplace Policy, and the process and scope of drug testing.
  4. Provide Employee Assistance Programs. Employer-sponsored treatment can be a cost effective solution to addiction in the workplace. Support confidential access to treatment, and ensure that employees are informed of every available resource.
  5. Implement Drug Testing Protocols. Drug testing programs can dramatically decrease the incidence of injury and errors in the workplace. When developing a drug testing program, use a lab certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, adopt a testing format that protects the privacy and dignity of each employee.
  6. Check with Insurance Provider. Reach out to your health insurance company or pharmacy benefit manager to determine what steps they are taking to address this crisis (e.g., monitoring prescribing habits).

Employers can play a vital role in combatting the opioid epidemic. By educating employees on the risks of prescription medication, training managers to identify potential signs of impairment, and providing support programs and resources to those affected by addiction, employers can foster a healthy and safe workplace environment poised for success.