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June 06, 2014
Prescription painkillers kill more people than motor vehicle crashes. Have you addressed this workplace hazard?
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

In Week 1 of National Safety Month, the National Safety Council is reminding employers and workers about the dangers of prescription drug use in the workplace. Have you addressed this workplace hazard at your facility? Keep reading for essential information.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 22,000 people die annually from overdoses of prescription painkillers, which now contribute to more deaths than all illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The CDC also says women are at particularly high risk: although more men than women still die from prescription painkiller overdoses, the gap is closing, and from 1999 to 2010, the percentage increase in deaths was more than 400% among women, compared to 265% among men. Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription painkillers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer time periods than men, and women may become physically dependent on these medications more quickly—all risk factors for addictions and overdoses.

For employers, the consequences are multifold. Workers who are abusing opioid painkillers—particularly those in safety-sensitive positions such as operating machinery—may be at increased risk for incidents, injuries, and errors due to the drugs’ effects on alertness and mental clarity. An impaired worker can be a danger both to him- or herself and others (coworkers and/or members of the public), potentially leading to costly accidents, workers’ compensation claims, and lawsuits. Finally, there’s the loss of productivity that can occur both from a worker dealing with a drug addiction and from any resulting accidents or injuries.

The following is a list of on-the-job behaviors the National Safety Council highlights as possible indications of a prescription painkiller problem:

  • Lack of attention or focus
  • Poor decision-making
  • Decreasing work quality
  • Poor judgment
  • Unusual carelessness
  • Frequently missing work

In many cases, prescription painkiller abuse stems from a legitimate injury or medical condition. An initial prescription for an opioid painkiller can lead to physical dependence, and sometimes addiction, if the drug is not taken as prescribed or is taken for a long period of time. For employers, this means that injury prevention—particularly prevention of the musculoskeletal disorders that can cause chronic pain—is key to preventing prescription drug abuse.

A job hazard analysis can help to identify places where employees could be at risk of injury. Look for hazards from lifting and overexertion, awkward postures, contact with objects or equipment, slip and fall hazards, repetitive motion, and other issues. A wellness program that encourages employees to maintain a healthy weight and be physically active can also help to prevent injuries.

In addition, working with your workers’ compensation provider to develop a system for managing and treating injuries that focuses on limited, responsible use of prescription painkillers can help to manage the problem if an employee does become injured. Physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and exercises are a few of the many methods can help treat injuries and manage pain without the need for opioid painkillers.

Finally, make sure you have a clear drug-free workplace policy that addresses abuse of opioid painkillers in addition to alcohol and illegal substances such as heroin and cocaine.

Share these tips from the National Safety Council with employees to help prevent unintentional overdoses:

  • Only use medications as directed by your physician.
  • Always follow the recommended dosage prescribed by your physician.
  • Keep medications in their original container.
  • Don’t share prescribed medications.
  • Properly dispose of any unused or expired medications.
  • Talk with your physician or pharmacist for information about possible drug interactions with other medications you may be taking.
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