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Employers paying heavy price for opioid epidemic

Holly Culhane

Holly Culhane

Some business owners and managers may prefer to keep their heads in the sand rather than confront the nationwide opioid addiction epidemic that is impacting their workplaces.

That’s understandable. Laws and procedures regarding the use of illegal drugs are much more straightforward when it comes to enforcing “drug-free workplaces.” Dealing with the use and abuse of legal prescription drugs can be more challenging.

But the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and safety, recently released a report and industry-specific calculator that is intended to be a big slap on the head to employers who chose to believe “ignorance is bliss.”

The report, “The Proactive Role Employers Can Take: Opioids in the Workplace,” can be downloaded from the organization’s website, The NSC collaborated with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the addiction resource organization Shatterproof to develop an online calculator to inform employers how much the opioid epidemic is costing companies every year.

Posted at, the NSC calculator uses government and private sector research to estimate annual costs in three categories: time lost from work, job turnover and retraining, and health care costs. Pull-down menus allow you to select your state, industry and workforce size.

To test out the calculator, we selected six industry categories common to Kern County and assigned a workforce size of 200 employees to each. The total annual cost results were eye-popping: agriculture, $31,374; mining (which would include oil production), $96,690; manufacturing (durable), $68,972; construction, $84,377; retail, $73,302; and professional, management, administration, $101,541.

Because Bakersfield is the largest city in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the seat of government for Kern County, I used different workforce numbers for those two “public administration” entities. I estimated the city’s workforce at 1,000 and the county’s at 5,000. As a result, the NSC calculator estimated taxpayers (who really are the employers) may be receiving a $222,666 and $1,110,204 annual hit, respectively, as the result of the opioid epidemic.

The NSC estimates that prescription painkiller addiction and abuse is annually costing employers nationwide nearly $42 billion, including the cost of “lost production.” Workers who abuse prescription drugs are more likely to be late to work, or absent altogether. They are more likely to be involved in injury, or fatal accidents, resulting in increased workers’ compensation costs. They can exhibit a wide range of performance problems.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports deaths from opioids, which include prescription painkillers, have quadrupled nationwide since 1999. Between 2014 and 2015, heroin deaths in the U.S. increased 21 percent. Deaths from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, increased 72 percent.

Steps employers can take include:

• Update “drug-free workplace” and “substance abuse testing” policies to address the use and abuse of prescription drugs. Consult with legal advisers to insure policies conform to local, state and federal laws.

• Insist employees adhere to the directions and requirements associated with their prescription drugs. They must not show up to work impaired.

• Provide an effective employee assistance program to encourage workers to seek help for dependency and addiction.

• Train supervisors to recognize addiction and substance abuse problems and how to appropriately and legally address them.

• Educate workers about the dangers of substance abuse, including prescription drug abuse, and the availability of recovery and mental health services.

• Work with health care benefits plan managers to identify substance abuse trends and to develop effective responses and employee services.

“Companies and organizations of all sizes have an important role promoting the health and safety of employees and managing risks in the workplace,” NSC researchers note. “Employers who have strong workplace policies, education, health benefits programs and well-trained managers create safe and healthy environments in which both employees and business thrive.”

— Holly Culhane is consultant emeritus with the Bakersfield-based human resources consulting firm P.A.S. Associates and P.A.S. Investigations and founder/CEO of Presence Point Inc. She can be contacted through the website and through the PAS Facebook page.

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