Prescription Drug Abuse

How to Combat the Rising Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic

Opioids are being overprescribed. And it’s not children reaching in medicine cabinets who have made drug poisoning the #1 cause of unintentional death in the United States. America’s most fatally abused drug is legal and sitting in the medicine cabinet. While Nebraska does not have the alarming rate of opioid problems that other states do, there are still measures that need to be taken to help combat the rising issue, this can be accomplished through prevention, treatment, and enforcement.

Prescription drug overdoses are one of the fastest growing causes of injury deaths.  According to CDC, more than 15,000 people die annually from overdoses of prescription medicines. Prescription pain relievers contribute to more deaths than all illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Most fatal drug overdoses result from pain relief medications also known as opioid analgesics. Opioids include: oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and buprenorphine. Mixing prescription pain medication with alcohol and/or over-the-counter pain medications increases the risk of a fatal overdose.

  • Among people 35 to 54 years old, unintentional drug overdoses cause more deaths than motor vehicle crashes.

  • More than 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers report getting them from friends or relatives.

  • In 2010, more than 400,000 emergency room visits were made related to prescription pain relievers.

  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.

How much can substance abuse cost your company? 

Find out the real cost of substance abuse to employers based on your industry, state, and number of employees by using the Substance Use Cost Calculator at

5 things employers should know about prescription painkiller use

Opioid painkillers compromise employee safety

Even after an employee returns to work, he or she could still feel the effects of prescription painkillers. While an employee might take a legally prescribed amount of painkillers, he or she still may be too impaired to do tasks such as operating equipment, driving, or preforming other job duties in a safe manor.

In Nebraska, safety is a shared responsibility between employees and supervisors. It is important for employees to be “safety conscious” and take precautions to avoid injury (Work Place Policies, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services). It’s critical to educate your employees about the potential danger that Opioids, and other prescription drugs, could pose.

Workers prescribed opioids have significantly higher worker's compensation claims

Workers prescribed even one opioid have four times more expensive total claim costs than workers with similar claims who didn’t get opioids . Employers and insurers have been held financially accountable for overdose deaths tied to injured workers.

Employers pay an important role in helping their employees seek treatment

Research shows that employee recovery rates are higher when employers offer or suggest treatment, rather than friends or family. Educating your employees and putting together a company plan for them to get help could end up saving their job, and even their life.

Opioid painkillers can delay recovery and return to work

“Return to work” and “fitness for duty” criteria vary widely, so it’s often difficult for employers to determine when an employee can safely begin working while under the influence of prescription painkillers. Opioid painkillers also delay recovery from workplace injuries.

Using opioid painkillers increase the likelihood of disability claims

Receiving more than a one-week supply of opioids soon after an injury doubles a worker’s risk of disability one year later.

Prevention Strategies: opioids in the workplace

Make a team

By training your employees, you will take a huge step in the direction of success. The training should start by forming your team, this can include internal employees such as executive leaders, human resources, or safety/risk management, and external, such as law enforcement, clinical experts, and community resources. The next step is to identify and examine your current policies. 

Adopt a policy

Requiring drug tests for job applicants is a common practice in Corporate America. However, they’re missing the boat, says Dr. Don Teater, National Safety Council medical advisor According to Teater, safety-minded companies should expand drug testing panels to include commonly prescribed medications. Industries where alertness is required or heavy machinery is operated would particularly benefit from doing this. This expanded test would do a better job of identifying the presence of prescription drugs with potentially fatiguing side effects. Other policies to examine and revamp include company stance, disciplinary actions, safety and risks, and education and training.

Engage employees

Overall awareness about the dangers of prescription drugs can be done early on, even as the company’s policies are still being developed. Consider where and how often the educational sessions should occur (onboarding, semiannually, annually, or when an event occurs). Making the educational sessions interactive makes the employees engaged in conversation. Encouraging employees to speak up and ask for help when they need it should also be involved in the conversation.

Positive Influence Starts at the Top

It’s important to be proactive about your employee’s safety and well-being. By leading by example, your employees will also use safety-minded practices in the workforce.

Steps to update a drug free workplace program to address prescription drugs

Human resource managers and safety professionals know the importance of a healthy workforce that is free from drugs and alcohol. Workers may use prescription drugs to get high or to self-treat a medical condition with medication prescribed for someone else. Workers also may take a larger dose than prescribed in the hope of increasing therapeutic effect. Collectively, these drug taking behaviors are referred to as nonmedical prescription drug use. They put workers at risk of potentially fatal adverse drug reactions. They also can create workplace safety hazards. 

Without medical supervision, opioid prescription pain killers can be deadly, especially when mixed with alcohol, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety or other medications. Even taken as prescribed, these medications limit safe usage of machinery or motor vehicles and can cause dangerous impairment. Evidence is mounting. Nonmedical prescription misuse increases absenteeism, presenteeism, accidents, injuries and addiction to illicit drugs. Updating your DFWP to address prescription drug abuse is an important strategy in stemming abuse in your organization. 

Step 1: Define the employee’s role in making the workplace safe.

Step 2: Adding prescription drug testing to traditional illicit drug testing.

Step 3: Incorporate language that addresses nonmedical prescription drug use.

Step 4: Obtain legal advice.

Step 5: Train supervisory staff and educate employees.

Step 6: Review service coverage for behavioral health and/or Employee Assistance 
Program (EAP) needs. 

For more information about the steps and specific details, visit and download the employer kit.

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