Prescription painkiller abuse is a growing epidemic affecting workers from all industries and all types of jobs. As workplaces all over the country see an increase in employees impacted by addiction to prescription opioids, employers and human resources professionals continue to look for the best way to fight this epidemic. It’s difficult for an employer to navigate since most employees using prescription painkillers have obtained them lawfully with a valid prescription. However, it is important for employers to understand the negative impacts of the issue, and what they can do about it.

As an employer, you have committed resources into finding, hiring, and training the best people you can. Protect your business by educating employees on the risks of prescription painkillers and helping those who may be suffering from addiction. When an employee has an opportunity to seek help for addiction and, in turn, keep his or her job, it benefits both the employee and the employer. Erase the stigma of opioid addiction by offering your employees support and resources.

A Dose Of Reality For Employers

How does opioid abuse impact your business?

$26 billion/year:

The amount employers lost from consequences of prescription pain medication abuse, including absenteeism, diminished productivity, and lost earnings from premature death.1

$1.4 billion/year:

What workplace insurers (i.e., Worker’s Compensation program underwriters) spent on narcotic and opioid painkillers.2

9x higher:

The overall cost to treat a workplace injury when a narcotic painkiller is prescribed.3

4 out of 5:

The number of employers that have had to deal with opioid prescription addiction and abuse in their workplace.4

Hire, don’t fire:

Workers in recovery have lower turnover rates and are less likely to miss work days, less likely to be hospitalized, and have fewer doctor visits.5

What Employers Can Do

First, consult your human resources professional and/or legal counsel before you do anything. This is where civil rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and many state protections come into play. Although federal and state laws limit your options in addressing prescription drug use in the workplace, that doesn’t mean you can afford to do nothing.

Here are some steps for employers to take:

Evaluate or re-evaluate your company’s drug policy.

Your company has the right to provide a drug-free workplace. However, your drug-free workplace policy might only currently address illegal drugs. With the increased use of narcotic and opioid prescription painkillers, you should revisit these policies and update them in tandem with human resources and legal counsel.

However, consider revising your policy with treatment in mind- instead of firing a struggling employee, focus on recovery and retention. Offer support, resources, and open communication rather than implementing a zero-tolerance policy. Retention benefits both the employer and the employee, putting them in the best situation to seek help and pursue treatment.

Also, consider employee-sponsored treatment.

Consider including prescription medications in your company’s drug testing program.

Drug tests can be perceived as being highly intrusive, but they can be invaluable tools for preventing drug-related incidents and reducing risk, according to the National Safety Council. In several safety-sensitive industries, in addition to the industry-standard Department of Transportation panel, employers are also testing for prescription medications such as barbiturates (pentobarbital, butabarbital), benzodiazepines (alprazolam, diazepam), synthetic opiates (hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone), propoxyphene (although this drug is no longer manufactured), and methadone. A relatively new trend is also the addition of buprenorphine (suboxone).

Educate employees about the dangers of prescription painkiller use and misuse.

According to the National Safety Council, employees should know:

  • To discuss concerns about taking prescription narcotic and opioid painkillers with their prescribing medical professional and ask for a non-narcotic alternative.
  • What state law says about driving while using prescription drugs. In Arkansas, you can be cited and/or arrested for drugged driving, even if you are under the influence of a legitimately prescribed medication.
  • The risks of taking painkillers while performing safety-sensitive tasks.
  • How to safely store and dispose of prescription painkillers.
  • Never to take someone else’s prescribed painkillers or share theirs with anyone else.

Train supervisors and managers.

Make sure they know the company’s current drug-free workplace and drug-testing policies and any updates as they’re made. Train them to recognize the potential signs of drug impairment, and the proper steps to take if they suspect an employee is impaired.

Look into use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are programs that offer employees up to three confidential counseling sessions on a wide range of health issues.

Also consider offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders, including aftercare and counseling.

Resources for Business

Get the facts on the dangers of prescription painkiller abuse and share them with your employees.

Share Drug Take Back locations near you and encourage employees to dispose of any expired or unwanted prescription painkillers.



1 source: National Business Group on Health’s Employers Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse 2009

2 source: The New York Times June 2012

3 source: Accident Fund Holdings

4 source:  National Safety Council study of Indiana employers December 2015

5  source: National Safety Council – National Employer Drug Survey Results 2017