Workplace Drug Use

Employers Advised to Be More Proactive on Rx Drugs

The widespread epidemic of opioid abuse is affecting employers in ways that go beyond the scope of workers' comp prescription costs.
By: | February 29, 2016 • 3 min read

Employers are increasingly seeing negative effects from the use of prescription drugs, especially opioids, according to a new survey. While many are using tools to stem the tide, the strategies may be insufficient to really address the problem.


The National Safety Council says employers can be especially influential in the fight against opioid abuse in their workforces. The council has released findings from a survey of more than 200 Indiana-based organizations illustrating the concerns and challenges facing employers and the steps they are taking.

“What we learned was that almost 80 percent of companies reported being impacted by prescription drug use or abuse,” said Tess Benham, senior program manager at the NSC. “They noted a wide range of issues.”

Many cited increases in near-misses related to prescription drugs; almost 1 in 4 respondents reported incidents of workers borrowing or selling drugs at work; 41 percent saw an increase in positive drug tests; and more than 40 percent reported an increase in absenteeism or missed work while 35 percent reported a drop in productivity.

“Almost 80 percent of companies reported being impacted by prescription drug use or abuse.” —Tess Benham, senior program manager, National Safety Council.

While the majority of respondents say prescription drugs are impacting their companies, few named it as one of their overriding day-to-day concerns. “It’s having a huge impact on their workforces,” Benham said during a recent webinar on Prescription Drug Abuse in the Workplace: Prevention Strategies and Solutions. “But there is a real disconnect in terms of how companies deal with this.”

For example, while most have written workplace drug policies, few of them address prescription drug abuse. Additionally, 87 percent of companies report they conduct drug testing — preemployment, when there is reasonable suspicion, or randomly — but only 52 percent include the most commonly used opioids in their tests; and the majority of employers want employees who abuse drugs to get help but they are unable to identify them.

The speakers said with effective training and education employers can play a major role in helping workers with substance abuse problems. “Employer-initiated treatment has better long term outcomes than treatment initiated by the criminal justice system or family members,” Benham said. “Employers have a big role to play to get them help.”

Employers seeking to develop an effective substance abuse program are advised to take the following steps:

    • Forming the team. Members of the company’s legal, labor relations, and HR departments must be included. Organizations may also want to include other people within and outside the company such as those involved in health care, law enforcement, and the community.
    • Identifying available resources is also important. “Where do you have funds,” said Denise Fields, senior clinical consultant for Express Scripts. “In our study, could we get approval to pay for an hour of non-productive time for employees for training? Are there clinical experts or community leaders who can help put the plan together?”
    • Developing policies and procedures is key. These may include documents on drug testing, disciplinary action, medication security for a worker who needs to take a certain medication while at work, and education and training. “One note of caution is, don’t write a policy you cannot enforce,” Fields said.
    • Engaging employees in awareness and education is another critical element. This can begin with general awareness education about the magnitude of the prescription drug problem. “Some may not know how much of a problem it is,” Fields noted.

Training presentations should be interactive and include audience poling questions and/or games and competition, Fields advised. They should be relatable and include real-life examples. Also, the presenter should be non-judgmental. “That’s one of the most important things,” Fields said. “Anyone with addiction problems already has enough shame.”

Training should include discussions on the signs and symptoms of potential prescription drug abuse. “Few companies do training around this issue,” Benham said. “In light of the prescription drug problem, I think employers have a very proactive role they can take in terms of increased awareness around this issue and increasing their ability to intervene.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]