The National Safety Council reports that at some point during the past three years Americans became more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash. This appears to be the first time in our nation’s history (since the development of the automobile) that this is the case.

For example, more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017. Over 47,000, or 65%, of those deaths involved opioids. More than 2 million Americans reportedly suffer from an opioid use disorder (OUD). As with any other societal trend, the metal forging community cannot escape the impacts of opioid use, but your business may find the following information and potential actions beneficial.

The opioid crisis involves three categories of opioids: prescription painkillers, including OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin; heroin; and fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds. Any of these opioids can cause impairment, dependence and addiction, even if prescribed by a doctor and taken by the patient as prescribed. The National Safety Council reports that the primary category of opioid overdose deaths shifted from prescription painkillers to heroin during the last decade and then to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Alcohol and other drugs were also involved in a significant number of opioid overdose deaths.

Chronic pain is a common medical issue in the United States, with as many as 20% of Americans reporting this condition. People living with chronic pain often manage it in more than one way, with a combination of exercise, physical therapy and/or over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers. The decision to prescribe opioids for chronic pain should always be made between a doctor and a patient. 

Opioids are generally not recommended until other therapies have been tried, and both doctors and patients should be educated and made fully aware of the risks. Medically, opioids are most often used to treat acute or chronic pain. Acute pain is often caused by surgery or an injury and is sometimes treated with a short-term opioid prescription. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that prescriptions last only three to five days and should be prescribed only in the case of severe pain.

Some employers have found it beneficial to establish a workplace policy enabling an employee who has been injured or has undergone surgery an adequate time to fully heal prior to returning to work. This can reduce the possibility that employees may risk taking additional opioids in order to get back to work before they have made a full recovery.

Until recently, mainstream media coverage on opioid abuse has largely concentrated on the law-enforcement issues relating to the problem rather than the medical ones. This is reinforced by the fact that many opioids are criminally trafficked in this country and serve the dark underbelly of the existing drug culture present in virtually every group of American society. Employers must, of course, be watchful that their workplace is not used for illicit drug trafficking. Appropriately, treatment versus dismissal must be decided in each opioid-abuse case individually.

Our coverage of this important topic will conclude in the December issue.