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Sandy Says: Opioid Addiction: How Low Can the High Go?

April 6, 2017
Opioid addiction is an epidemic in this country and like many epidemics, it's reaching into the workplace and threatening the lives of more than just the addict.

My first memory of the danger of drugs came when I was six or seven years old. The 17-year-old daughter of friends of my parents overdosed on heroin and back then, an overdose was a death sentence. Her funeral proved the perfect opportunity for my parents to discuss the dangers and tragedy of drugs with me and their message – along with the grief of a family I had known all my life – hit home.

For one of my first assignments with Occupational Hazards magazine (now EHS Today), I attended an occupational safety and health conference. The speaker who stood out most in my mind was a psychologist who mostly counseled workers with addiction issues.

Interestingly enough, his primary patients were pilots. He said that when he had to fly – something he really didn't like to do – he felt comforted when he recognized the voice of the pilot because it meant the pilot of his plane was in treatment and it was unlikely that he or she was impaired.

I was reminded of that story on March 16, when the news reported that a Spirit Airlines pilot and his wife, Brian and Courtney Halye, died from a suspected overdose of a mixture of heroin and fentanyl. Their four young children found them.

Brian Halye had worked for Spirit Airlines for nine years and his last flight as a pilot was March 10. I have no doubt that he flew while impaired. The Halyes were two of 165 people to die of accidental overdoses in their Ohio county since January.

I don't mean to single out pilots here; workers in all industries have been swept up into the opioid epidemic – whether it is prescription medications or illegal drugs – and it threatens not only their lives, but the lives of their co-workers.

According to a recent National Safety Council survey, employees struggling with substance abuse miss nearly 50 percent more work than unimpaired coworkers – as much as six weeks a year – but employers do not understand the business costs.

NSC says there is "a persistent gap between employer perceptions of impact and the actual human and business costs of substance use." The new survey found that only 39 percent of employers view prescription drug use as a threat to safety, and only 24 percent feel it is a problem, despite 71 percent saying they have experienced an issue.

In response to this alarming data, and to help employers understand the need to act quickly, Shatterproof, NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago have created the Substance Use Cost Calculator, which employers can use to compute what the opioid crisis means to their workforce.

"Businesses that do not address the prescription drug crisis are like ostriches sticking their head in the sand," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of NSC. "The problem exists and doing nothing will harm your employees and your business. As the tool shows, the cost of inaction is far too great."

The Substance Use Cost Calculator allows businesses to input basic statistics about their workforce such as industry, location and number of employees. The results show estimated prevalence of substance use disorders among employees and dependents, associated costs and potential savings if employees and their family members treat substance use disorders. More information can be found at http://www.nsc.org/drugsatwork.  

The analysis found that the cost of untreated substance use disorder ranges from $2,600 per employee in agriculture to more than $13,000 per employee in the information and communications sector. Addiction costs taxpayers more than $440 billion annually.

Seventy-five percent of adults struggling with a substance use disorder are in the workforce.
"Workers who are in recovery, who have received treatment at some time in the past, but who are not currently abusing substances, are less likely to leave their employer, use less unscheduled leave and use fewer health care resources than co-workers with an untreated substance use disorder," said Eric Goplerud, vice president, Public Health with NORC at the University of Chicago. "Supporting workers to treat substance use disorders is cost effective for employers."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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