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Painkillers: Costly for employers and deadly for employees

The National Safety Council's (NSC) recently issued report, Prescription Pain Medications: A Fatal Cure for Injured Workers, identifies 15 court cases from 2009 through 2015, where an employer was sued because of the prescribed use of opioids to treat workplace injuries. Many injured workers who were prescribed opioid painkillers have become addicted, suffered additional injuries, or fatally overdosed. As a result, courts have ordered workers' compensation to pay for detoxification, medication-assisted treatment, and death benefits to surviving family members.

The report further points out that workers who use opioid painkillers for more than a week to treat on-the-job injuries have double the risk of being disabled one year later. The average lost time workers' compensation claim for workers using opioid painkillers can total as much as $117,000, which is 900 percent higher than the cost for workers who do not take opioid painkillers.

To help protect injured workers and mitigate liability, NSC recommends employers:

Employers are also encouraged to download the free Prescription Drug Employer Kit for resources and tips to develop policies and manage opioid use at work.

Two other recent studies on the same subject provide helpful information for employers. A Mayo Clinic study found that one in four new opioid users progress to long-term use and those who also abused other substances, like alcohol or nicotine, were more likely to use opioids for a longer time.

Construction industry

The cost of opioid use is 5% to 10% greater for injured construction workers than for injured workers in other industries, according to a new analysis by insurer CNA Financial Corp. Oklahoma, Texas and Florida have higher frequencies of painkiller abuse among injured construction workers than many other states. Researchers recommend, to combat potential prescription opioid abuse among construction workers, employers should educate employees about "the potency of these drugs, how they work, how they interact with other drugs and how they can become addictive." Strong social support from co-workers and management, "especially the immediate supervisor," aids return to work.