Prescription medications, when used correctly and under a doctor’s supervision, often result in favorable treatment outcomes and an improved quality of life.  However, those same medications can put both individual and workplace at risk when abused. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet rose from 76 million in 1991 to 213 million in 2013.  That’s a 176 percent increase, and one that is hitting the workforce where it hurts.  Prescription painkillers increase workers’ compensation costs, work time lost, and length of worker disability.  These workplace costs make up nearly half of an estimated $60 billion dollars a year in economic costs of opioid abuse. 

A study by the National Safety Council (NSC) found that 80 percent of Indiana employers have been negatively impacted by prescription drug abuse by employees.  According to Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of NSC, “we would expect very similar results in many states.  This is not a local problem, and it’s very important for employers to understand this is an issue they need to pay attention to and not put their heads in the sand.”

The NSC study revealed that two-thirds of employers believe prescription pills cause more problems than illegal drugs.  But only half of those employers have a written policy on prescription drug use. More than 60 percent of employers reported that they were not confident that their staff was able to recognize signs and symptoms of drug misuse or abuse.  Even so, less than 30 percent of those employers offered training on workplace usage of prescription drugs.

Educating employees about opioid abuse could save employers a significant amount of money, more than enough to make up for the cost of those education programs.  If an employee is taking a prescription painkiller, their cost on workers comp goes up four times. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-medical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers $72.5 billion annually.

Of course, there are limitations on what employers can do when it comes to the prescription drug epidemic.  Legal concerns about privacy, potential violations of the confidential doctor-patient relationship, and protection of personal medical information can make dealing with this issue tricky.  But employers have the legal right to provide a drug-free workplace, and this includes drug testing. 

The Society for Human Resource Management suggests the following when it comes to drug testing:

  • Use a lab certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or an equivalent state agency.
  • Use a testing format that respects employees’ privacy and dignity.
  • Have a clear written policy explaining testing procedures and disciplinary actions. Employees should understand how the test will be given, when it will be given and what drugs the test can detect.
  • Require employees to read the policy and sign an acknowledgment that they have done so.
  • Document why each drug test was administered and how it was performed.
  •  Ensure test results are absolutely confidential.
  • Know what drugs to test for.  Many companies use a standard five-panel test that will miss Oxycodone and most other abused prescription drugs. 

Drug tests are invaluable tools in the prevention of drug-related incidents in the workplace, and workplace drug-testing programs can prevent abuse through apprehension of getting caught and facing the consequences of doing so.  Testing helps protect a company’s bottom line, and more importantly, the health and well-being of its employees.


“A Drug Epidemic That’s Plaguing the US Workplace.” CNBC. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.
“Curb Prescription Drug Abuse at Work with Six Proactive Steps  .”Curb Prescription Drug Abuse at Work with Six Proactive Steps. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.