More than $78 billion a year—that’s how much The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate the economic burden of prescription opioid use and misuse to be. That figure includes not only costs to society, but also costs to the workplace. Lost productivity, health-care expenses, workers’ compensation claims and on-the-job risks are among the opioid-related issues facing employers everywhere.
A number of strategies have been proposed to combat the problem of opioid use in the workplace, but these plans fail to offer an alternative solution for managing pain. Safer and more effective than opioids, cannabis can provide that alternative, with benefits for employee health and a company’s bottom line.
Opioid pain medications such as Vicodin and OxyContin belong to a class of powerful painkillers that includes heroin and morphine. These medications block pain signals in the brain, but they also depress the central nervous system, causing breathing and heart rate to slow. When a person takes too many opioids, or combines them with other sedatives or alcohol, those automatic functions can be depressed to the point of death.
The CDC warns that opioids are intended only for short-term use to relieve acute pain from injuries or surgery. After only a few days of use, opioids can become addictive. But a majority of doctors who prescribe opioids do so for longer than 60 days—even though these medications aren’t very effective for chronic pain. All of these factors combine to raise the risk of misuse, addiction, and harm to self and surroundings.
Opioid use can negatively affect the workplace in a number of ways. A worker might be using opioid medications prescribed for something unrelated to the workplace, such as an off-time injury or pain from a chronic condition. But if that employee is overusing the medications, or has become addicted to them, work performance and productivity can suffer.
Prescribing information for opioid drugs typically warns against operating machinery or other activities requiring precision and concentration until users know how the medication will affect them. Opioid users in jobs requiring these kinds of tasks can cause serious workplace accidents, or errors that create a cascading series of problems.
People who misuse opioids may also miss work more often, leaving essential tasks undone or forcing others to take on their workload. Opioids can also cause a long list of secondary health problems including constipation, depression, and a heightened risk of bone fracture, all of which can lead to more sick days and difficulty performing job duties.
But many people who end up misusing or becoming addicted to opioids do so because of a workplace injury that leads to a prescription for at least one opioid drug for pain, typically for 60 days or more. When long-term use of opioids is involved, the cost of workers’ compensation claims can skyrocket.
According to a 2012 study, workers who received even one opioid medication for a workplace injury had claims costs that were four to eight times higher than claims incurred by workers who didn’t take opioids. Meanwhile, the Workers Compensation Research Institute found that the cost of time lost for workers using opioids averaged $117,0000—roughly 900% higher than the cost of time taken off by workers who didn’t take opioids.
Additional research reveals that workers taking opioids for more than 90 days aren’t likely to go back to work, both because of dependence on the drugs and the side effects and secondary diseases related to using them.
To reduce harm to the workplace and reduce costs related to workers’ compensation and insurance claims, employers in several industries are working with insurers and claims managers to find ways to limit the prescribing of opioids in workplace injury cases, and reduce problems caused by opioid use on the job.
Suggested strategies include:
Conspicuously absent from these solutions, though, is cannabis—a demonstrably safe and effective approach to managing chronic pain without the risks associated with opioid drugs.
Research reveals that a majority of participants who used cannabis were able to reduce their use of prescription opioids—or stop using them altogether. Because cannabis affects the body in ways that are very different from opioids, a cannabis protocol can ease pain without the risk of addiction and withdrawal, or death from overdose. When used as an alternative to opioids for managing chronic pain, cannabis can restore lost productivity, reduce employer costs—and save lives.
Photo credit: Bradley Wentzel