What employers need to know about opioids in the workplace

A Snohomish Health District initiative is aimed at helping employers deal with the epidemic.

Heather Thomas, public and government affairs manager of the Snohomish Health District.

Heather Thomas, public and government affairs manager of the Snohomish Health District.

LYNNWOOD — The Snohomish Health District’s new initiative is aimed at helping employers deal with the opioid epidemic.

It’s a topic that isn’t routinely discussed at the water cooler or in the corner office, said Heather Thomas, the district’s public and government affairs manager.

That’s despite the fact 25 percent of businesses describe themselves as “extremely unprepared” to deal with prescription drug misuse. The percentage is even higher among employers with fewer than 1,000 workers, according to a recent National Safety Council study.

To jump-start the conversation, Thomas and Sarah Hale, an attorney who represents the health district, gave a talk at a recent Economic Alliance Snohomish County event in Lynnwood: “Substance Use in the Workplace: How Employers Play a Role in the Opioid Response.”

Studies by the Safety Council indicate that of the 21 million Americans struggling with substance-use disorder, 75 percent are employed, Thomas told participants.

Drug misuse in the workplace is associated with increased worker’s compensation costs, increased risk for on-the-job injuries, accidents and medical care costs, Thomas said.

Offering support to workers in recovery is good business because it cuts turnover and saves retraining costs.

The health district is offering the seminar to employers that want to strike a balance between supporting workers in recovery and mitigating risk.

It also plans to offer webinar training, Thomas said.

Last year, Snohomish County lost over 90 people to an opioid overdose.

In 2016, 2,390 patients were treated at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett for problems with opioids or narcotics.

When the health district began distributing free kits last year for the safe disposal of discarded syringes, “we began hearing from local employers,” Thomas said.

“They were finding needles and syringes in the workplace — at the back door or in the alley.”

A first step for employers, said Hale, is revising incomplete and outdated workplace drug policies.

“Talk to legal consultants for assistance,” Hale advised. “You want to create a clear statement of prohibited conduct and the consequences.”

Other recommended steps include requiring employees to report the use of prescription medications that might impair their ability to work; expanding drug testing to include opioids; and consulting with prescription and health plan providers to monitor the use of opioids — and asking them if alternative pain management is covered.

At the same time, it is important to ensure people in recovery “are welcomed back into the workplace,” Thomas told participants.

Supporting workers in recovery is good business, she said.

Consider the following: A trusted employee who’s had hip replacement surgery becomes dependent on opioids. Now what?

Instead of incurring steep hiring and re-training costs, an employer can create a “last-chance agreement that says, ‘If you do this again, then you will be terminated,” Hale said.

Workers in recovery are less likely to call in sick than their co-workers and have lower turnover rates, Thomas said, citing a Safety Council study.

Why?

“They’re grateful for that second chance,” Thomas said.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

More about opioids in the workplace

For information about opioids in the workplace, go to the Snohomish County Health District website at www.snohd.org or email opioids@snohd.org.

The National Safety Council provides a calculator that estimates the number of illicit drug users by industry, state and associated employer costs at www.nsc.org/forms/substance-use-employer-calculator.

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