When most people hear about drug overdoses, they immediately think of the stereotypical homeless, strung out “druggie.” But the truth is, millions of people struggle with addiction every day, most of whom you would never suspect, including doctors, attorneys, IT engineers, heavy equipment operators, soccer moms and successful entrepreneurs.
I know this to be true because I was one of them.
After a series of injuries and surgeries I endured as a Division I collegiate athlete, I became addicted to pain pills, specifically opioids. Soon, prescription pills weren’t enough, and I was hooked on gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB). When I was 24 years old, I accidentally took the equivalent of 10-15 doses all at once, which resulted in a seizure and overdose. Thankfully, my brother was there to call paramedics who revived me and saved my life.
Now, nearly ten years sober and an HR professional at American Addiction Centers, I am keenly aware of the risks of substance use disorder (SUD) and overdose in the workplace, especially as we find ourselves amid a pandemic.
The statistics are shocking and overwhelming: substance use has skyrocketed since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns and overdose deaths hit an all-time high of more than 93,000 in 2020, an increase of nearly 30% from 2019, according to provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
What’s more, according to the CDC, drug overdose deaths while at work are on the rise, with transportation/warehousing, construction and healthcare/social service industries ranking in the top three for highest OD deaths. While these jobs might seem disconnected on the surface, they have one thing in common: access to opioids.
With accidents and injuries common in warehouse and construction work, prescription pain killers are the go-to treatment solution. In the healthcare field, drugs are easily available and accessible. It’s a recipe for substance use disorder, especially for those with a genetic predisposition.
Safety professionals are in a position to help prevent overdoses and detect addiction in the workplace. However, they can’t do it alone. Safety professionals need to work with human resources, legal and other business stakeholders to make sure interventions and policies are lawful, in compliance and are both fair and enforceable. Here are five strategies that can help employees:
1. Implement a substance use policy.
It’s difficult to take any action at all without a policy in place—one that employees must be made aware of and agree to. Clearly state your expectations, any routine drug screening protocols and potential consequences for violation of the policy.
2. Specify what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.”
While we’d like to assume no one would report a co-worker for substance use for nefarious reasons, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Be clear in the objectively observable physical signs to look for: odor of alcohol or marijuana, changes in speech (which can be slurred from alcohol use or overly talkative from opioids), excessively drowsy or agitated, watery or glassy eyes or pupils that are either inappropriately dilated or constricted. In addition, I recommend enforcing a policy that states if this behavior is reported by anyone, it must be observed by at least one member of management—two to be safe.
3. Educate leadership and staff on the disease of addiction.
There’s still a huge stigma and misunderstanding that substance use disorder is a moral failing or a character flaw. That can make staff more likely to take a harsh stance if they suspect a co-worker may have a problem. To counteract that stigma and encourage staff to be supportive instead of judgmental, offer trainings that clarify addiction as a disease and that it should be viewed and treated like one.
By understanding the genetics, the biology and the fact that addiction doesn’t discriminate, employees will be more likely to look out for one another and take an empathetic approach. Better yet, employees will feel less shame for their own addiction and seek the help they need.
4. Offer a second chance.
In many scenarios, substance use can be a Catch-22 for workers. They know they may get fired if they get caught, but they may also be physically dependent on a substance. Worse, if they stop, they may go through withdrawals or get sick and miss work, which may also get them fired. Either way, they’re set up for failure.
Instead, create a policy that gives workers a second chance. Let employees know that if they come forward or volunteer to get treatment for their substance use disorder, you’ll hold their position and help them find a treatment program. This gives employees an opportunity to get the help they need without losing the income, security and sense of accountability that comes with employment. To outright fire them on the spot can send them—and the rest of the workforce—down a dangerous path of isolation and despair that could lead to an accidental or intentional overdose.
5. Consider Narcan training where appropriate.
Despite best efforts to reduce the risk of substance use and overdose while on the job, it’s certainly not a guarantee that it’ll never happen. Especially in certain high-risk industries, it’s wise to have a contingency plan that includes having Narcan/naloxone on hand, as well as staff trained in proper administration.
While your sales team may not need it since they’re rarely on-site with staff, warehouse or jobsite supervisors would be good candidates for Narcan training. Of course, each organization is different, so you should consider where their biggest risks lie in your organization and where it would be most valuable to train staff.
With drug use and overdose deaths on the rise, we owe it to our employees to provide an empathetic and supportive workplace culture where they can feel comfortable admitting they need (and can get) help for addiction issues. Certainly, substance use in the workplace can be dangerous for all involved, so a zero-tolerance policy makes sense, but giving your employees a second chance—either through access to treatment or medical overdose antidotes—can save lives.
In observance of Overdose Awareness Day on August 31, American Addiction Centers is hosting free, virtual training sessions for businesses to get their staff trained on how to administer Narcan. To sign up, click here.
Tim Stein is vice president of Human Capital for American Addiction Centers, a nationwide network of addiction rehab facilities. With nearly a decade of experience in training leadership roles, Stein’s knowledge and experience led to the establishment of AAC’s training department whose mission is to foster an engaged workforce dedicated to transforming the lives of those with addiction, a cause close to Stein as he is in recovery himself.