The availability and widespread use (and abuse) of opioids by workers present an ever-greater challenge to business owners and a threat to their companies. In fact, a recent National Safety Council (NCS) survey reported that 39 percent of employers viewed prescription drug use as a threat to safety, and seven in 10 companies reported issues ranging from absenteeism to overdose. Opioid painkillers account for about $55.6 billion in societal costs each year, including worker’s compensation, employee productivity, patient care and crime. But what exactly are opioids?

Opioid use 101

Opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that interact with opioid nerve cells in the body and brain, and reduce the intensity of pain signals and feelings. This class of drugs includes dangerous and illegal heroin and fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) and prescription drugs you may have in your medicine cabinet — oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, etc. Because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relieve, they can be misused.

When users become abusers they suffer what is described as opioid use disorder because they are unsuccessful in cutting down or controlling their use. Their opioid misuse results in social problems and keeps them from fulfilling obligations at work, school and home.

Obviously, a worker abusing opioids doesn’t have to die to contribute to the epidemic. The abuser may, in fact, be a productive worker – perhaps one of your employees. Think not?

Do you drug test or not?

As a landscape company owner, do you drug test as part of your hiring process? Some of you, in addition to pre-employment testing, even alert employees to the possibility of random drug testing, especially after a serious workplace incident.

Do you have a one-strike-and-you’re-out drug use policy? Be aware that firing an employee after a first-time positive test for the presence of an opioid without an opportunity to receive treatment via counseling or rehab can become a legal issue.

Also, if an employee takes medication their physician prescribes for chronic pain, the employer cannot disqualify the worker due to a positive opioid test. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects these employees.

It’s generally believed that owners of many very small companies or companies that struggle to retain employees during busy times of the year do not drug test. For them, any able-bodied, willing worker will do, at least as the need for them remains? To date, there are no reliable statistics on the percentage of landscape companies – large or small, established or new – that drug test.

What effect is opioid misuse having on the landscape industry? Again, no definitive studies have been done on the subject although the nearly 21 million Americans living with substance use disorder should be reason enough to alarm employers.

Landscape workers at risk

Employers who rely on hourly labor in jobs such as construction and landscaping that require lifting heavy objects, awkward movements or sustained repeated motions should be most concerned. These fatiguing tasks cause workers to suffer painful muscular and skeletal strains and sprains. To lessen the pain, they may go to their primary care physician where they’re prescribed opioids.

Because many of these workers are paid only when they’re on the job (and they need the money), they show up for work with opioids in their systems. But instead of taking a single pill, they may take several. From there it’s not a big step to become a regular abuser of painkillers.

While distribution of these pain-alleviating drugs is supposed to be tightly regulated by the DEA, and companies are required to take steps to ensure that the pills are not diverted for illicit use or sale, too often that’s not the case. They end up in the wrong hands. Using opioids in this way is a felony.

How to protect your company

As a business owner, what can you do to lessen the threat of opioid abuse by employees?

  • Enact strong company drug policies and expand drug testing to include opioids.
  • Educate your workers about opioids and the dangers of overuse.
  • Train employees on work habits that reduce the likelihood of back injuries and muscle strains and sprains.
  • Institute safe material handling/lifting and equipment operation procedures and monitor that they are being followed.
  • Be on the lookout — and alert managers — for unusual employee behavior.