America’s worsening opioid crisis and the workplace

Any consumer of media knows our country is faced with an opioid epidemic that is claiming the lives of our friends, family members and coworkers. Without top-down action and intervention on a grand scale, matters will only get worse. Considering the profound consequences that opioid use and addiction have had on the workplace, employers are left with the responsibility to adapt. Barring this, they will continue to experience dramatic losses due to high turnover, lack of productivity, unsafe work environments and workers’ compensation claims.

Historically, our country has responded to addiction and drug abuse as a legal issue, a tactic that has clearly failed to produce the desired outcomes. The truth is that addiction is a human issue that will only be resolved with a humane response.


What can you, as an employer, do in response to addiction-related losses?

Start by creating a positive work environment where it’s safe to disclose personal addiction issues or those of a fellow employee. Make it clear to employees that this is available at no risk to themselves or their coworkers. At age 18, I worked for a union processing plant for steel shelving. A recurring issue involved employees driving forklifts and running machinery while heavily intoxicated. I feared for my safety, especially because coworkers, supervisors and the union turned a deaf ear. It was only a matter of time before something disastrous happened, and I decided not to stick around.

At a similar job, I was known as the strange one who didn’t join the rest of the crew for the trip to the bar when our shift ended at 7 a.m. Being known as “that guy” made me safe to approach by a coworker with an alcohol problem. In our last interaction, he informed me that he had sobered up after our brief conversation

Creating a supportive environment with a focus on prevention is a major step in the right direction. Zero-tolerance policies are not the answer. We can be much more creative in our approach than simply throwing addicted individuals on the scrap heap.


Making drug and alcohol counseling available to employees and ensuring awareness of this benefit is another way to be proactive. Base your decision on more than cost alone. Research various counseling alternatives. Inquire about outcomes and how they derive their data. I’ve actually conducted an intervention, in which the intended patient used his employer’s inadequate assistance program to manipulate his way out of getting help. I’ve also run into situations where the addicted person’s immediate supervisor supplied the addictive substance.

Many people can’t function without prescribed pain management. However, many can live a drug-free life with the help of qualified professionals and an individualized treatment plan.

Employers need to be receptive to an employee’s family that may reach out for help. Employer-support for a family intervention increases the likelihood that the individual will accept help. We’re faced with a highly complex crisis with no simple solutions. Continuing education will be key.


Education is power. There are many resources available for employers to educate themselves on addiction and warning signs. These include free educational events held by local addiction treatment, detox and counseling centers, as well as webinars.

Unfortunately, many people and institutions still view addiction as a poor choice made by the individual, a moral deficiency or even the result of an upbringing in a lower-class family or community. None of these are true. The reality is that no one is immune to addiction. All it takes to develop physical/psychological dependence is a need, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual, and an addictive substance used to fill that need with enough frequency and duration.

Many non-addicted employees receiving opiate prescriptions for the first time need to be educated about the risks involved in these medications. An educated employer will have the ability to pass this information on to his or her employee. Making this a top priority may result not only in a safer work environment, but may save lives in the process.

Arthur Westinghouse serves as co-founder and interventionist for Westinghouse Intervention.

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