By Kari Williamson, RN, LNCC, CCM

Nobody needs to remind employers that the economic costs of our opioid epidemic are huge. According to one study, opioid abuse by employees is costing employers more than $50 billion a year.  That’s mostly because of lost productivity and crime.

But the bottom line isn’t the only thing at risk when workers use opioids – even those who take a regular dose. According to the National Safety Council, opioids may make some workers too impaired to work, a concern especially for those who operate heavy machinery or must remain alert at all times.

Here are seven specific, pro-active steps that employers can take to create safer, healthier and more productive workplaces…

    1. Seek out an expanded drug testing panel, which looks for drug compounds not found in a five-panel test – benzodiazepines and opioid pain medications, according to the safety council.
    2. Know the physicians who are prescribing narcotics and be on the lookout for those who prescribe more opioids than others. Having reputable providers who are open and transparent with injured workers is critical to a foundation of good care.
    3. Ask insurers and providers to look out for warning signs that may signal abuse — such as lost prescriptions or unorthodox refills.
    4. Rely on case managers — filed or telephonic — to regularly follow up with your employees during their medication and treatment.
    5. Document. Document. Document. If an injured worker has been out on a serious injury, have policies in place to monitor their drug use and respond accordingly.
    6. Regularly educate and train yourself and employees about the dangers of opioid use and its insidious nature.
    7. Create a safe zone policy that allows for employees or injured workers to come and safely discuss possible addiction issues…and to get help and support.

I admit it.  These say easy and do hard.   Our opioid epidemic is a big, complex problem that touches on several issues and stakeholders, including physicians, insurers and patients.  There isn’t one cause…or cure.  Plus, it’s hard to pin down the “stereotypical” opioid user. The safety council says that nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce has used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

In other words, we’re in this together.

Kari Williamson, BS, RN, LNCC, CCM ( is the president of MKC Medical Management.  She works with lawyers, insurance examiners and others within the medical-legal-insurance space to better and more easily manage and understand complex claims issues.

NOTE:  This is the second in a series of posts about the impact of opioid abuse in the U.S. — and what we can do about it.  Here’s the first one.