Prescription Pain Killers at Work

Pain Meds and Workplace Safety: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You

This entry was posted in Drug Addiction on December 6, 2016 and modified on April 30, 2019

Opioid painkillers are some of the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S. Unfortunately, they’re also the most widely abused medications, and millions of Americans have significant problems related to their improper intake of prescription pain pills. And, as we’ll see, even a single person with an opioid problem can jeopardize the safety of your workplace.

Why Is Prescription Opioid Abuse Dangerous?

Prescription opioids get their name because they contain active ingredients that come directly or indirectly from substances that naturally occur in the opium poppy. (This plant is also the source of heroin and other illegal opioid drugs.) Doctors rely on these medications to treat certain forms of medically serious pain, especially pain that won’t respond to less powerful treatments like over-the-counter painkillers. Widely prescribed opioids include oxycodone (found in OxyContin, Percodan and Percocet) and hydrocodone (found in Vicodin and Lortab), as well as fentanyl, codeine and morphine.

These opioid medications are capable of triggering addiction, especially when used without a prescription or in amounts not directed by a doctor. Their effects can include euphoria, drowsiness and mental confusion. The intensity of these mind-altering effects can increase dramatically in people who take excessive amounts of prescription opioids. People who take excessive amounts also put themselves at risk of opioid overdose. Potential consequences of this extreme health crisis include vomiting, abnormally slow or shallow breathing, a slow or irregular heartbeat, loss of responsiveness, unconsciousness and death. People who mix opioid medications with certain other substances (including alcohol, benzodiazepines and barbiturates) increase their chances of experiencing fatal changes in normal breathing.

Pain Meds in the Workplace

Current federal figures indicate that close to 25% of all working Americans have used prescription opioids improperly. This means that, statistically speaking, if your company has 20 employees, four to five of these individuals at some point will be involved in the problematic use of pain meds. However, drug abuse at work is not the only source of workplace danger associated with opioid medications. In fact, even when used as prescribed, these medications can make it dangerous for workers to perform tasks that require mental or physical precision. All it takes to trigger a potentially serious accident is a moment of confusion or inattention caused by the effects of prescription opioids.

There are several other important reasons to pay close attention to the use of opioid medications in your workplace. First, across the country, the dollar amount of the claims made by injured workers with an opioid prescription is 300% higher than the amount of the claims made by injured workers who don’t take prescription painkillers. When injured workers receive prescription opioids as part of their treatment, they have a much higher chance of claiming disability 12 months after their injury occurred. In addition, if a fatal overdose occurs in the workplace, your company and your company’s worker’s compensation providers may be held fiscally accountable.

What Can You Do to Minimize Risk?

Companies face a dilemma when attempting to address prescription opioid abuse in the workplace. Simply put, these medications are not illegal when consumed by a legitimate prescription holder. For this reason, the tests used to detect illegal workplace drug consumption often specifically exclude hydrocodone, oxycodone and other prescription painkiller active ingredients. Still, companies have a pressing need to address this issue, protect worker safety and promote improved awareness of the consequences of pain med use on the job.

The National Safety Council makes several recommendations for how to limit the impact of prescription opioids in the workplace. First, your company must have a current policy on pain med use that covers all possible related issues. Once this policy is formulated, all employees should understand how it applies to their specific job title and work-related activities. Features of an effective policy include reassigning or modifying the tasks of employees who take prescription opioids and clearly stating that signs of opioid-related impairment are grounds for the use of a drug screening procedure that can detect these medications.


U.S. Department of the Interior – National Safety Council: Spotlight on Safety, March 2015

National Safety Council: Addressing Opioids in the Workplace

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Opioid Overdose

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Behavioral Health Trends in the United States – Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

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