As was reported in this column in October 2019, the National Safety Council reports that Americans became more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash at some point during the past three years. In 2017, more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, 65% of which involved opioid use.

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 benefit from the following information and potential actions.

In certain cases, employees may need long-term prescriptions for opioids – this is not the same as employees misusing opioids. Some employers have found benefits in providing coverage for several chronic pain-treatment options. Workplace policies and health-care coverage should prioritize minimizing risk for opioid misuse while not inadvertently creating barriers for chronic pain patients for whom opioids are the appropriate mechanism of care. Additionally, employers can help employees understand that even if opioids are recommended or prescribed they can decline the prescription or choose not to fill it.

Many people switching from prescription opioids to heroin do so because heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain when prescription opioids aren’t accessible – a scenario that could impact employees who are prescribed opioids due to a workplace injury and subsequently develop an OUD.

Unfortunately, heroin is significantly more potent than prescription opioids and is particularly dangerous because there is no way to determine its strength before ingesting it. In turn, fentanyl is much stronger than heroin and is frequently used to “cut” heroin for sale on the streets. While some fentanyl is manufactured legitimately for end-stage cancer pain, a small percentage of prescription fentanyl is diverted to illegal sales. The vast majority of fentanyl and chemically similar drugs driving the overdose crisis is being manufactured overseas and illegally trafficked into the U.S. Additionally, heroin laced with fentanyl has led to an increase in overdose deaths despite a general decrease in opioid prescriptions.

About two-thirds of people who have an OUD are in the workforce, and over 11 million people aged 12 and up reported misusing an opioid at some point in 2016. This relatively large number can lead to a reduced pool of available workers, meaning it can be difficult to find qualified, skilled workers who can pass drug screens. People with an OUD frequently have increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. Health-care costs continue to rise as the opioid crisis expands. Also, some behaviors resulting from an OUD are illegal, such as buying and using illegal drugs and other related illegal activity.

As an employer, this can be a major concern. If these activities occur on company property, while on the job or are reported per company policy, company protocol would determine the proper path for the employee vis-a-vis treatment versus dismissal. Obviously, safety concerns are also paramount for forge operations, and even strict adherence to opioid prescriptions can affect performance in safety-sensitive tasks.

If you’re wondering what you, as an employer, can do to help, know that some have found benefits by implementing certain actions to minimize the effects of the opioid crisis. These actions include:

  • Obtain senior leadership engagement and support
  • Engage and educate employees
  • Train managers and supervisors on the role they can play
  • Encourage HR to create compassionate, comprehensive policies
  • Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach by learning about and addressing the unique needs of the workplace
  • Update employer health-care plans and pharmacy benefit programs
  • Create a safer work environment with fewer hazards
  • Develop and encourage a workplace culture of health and wellness that reduces stigma and supports recovery