America's painkiller epidemic grips the workplace

New study claims that as much as 80 percent of employers face prescription drug abuse by workers.

Painkiller addiction hits the workplace
Painkiller addiction hits the workplace   

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Frieden, recently referred to opioid abuse — including prescription painkillers — as "a growing epidemic that is gripping our country."

And increasingly, that grip includes the American workplace.

A new survey, the first of its kind, conducted by the National Safety Council (NSC), along with Indiana's attorney general, concluded that 80 percent of Indiana employers have been impacted by prescription drug misuse and abuse by employees.

Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, told CNBC that these issues are not just limited to Indiana.

"We would expect very similar results in many states," Hersman said. "This is not a local problem; this is a national problem, and it's very important for employers to understand this is an issue they need to pay attention to and not put their head in the sand."

Millions of Americans are addicted to opioids, and the rate of death from addiction has tripled since 2010.

Pills spilled over in bottle
Sandra Baker | Getty Images

Though research is limited as to the exact economic costs of opioid abuse, the most recent estimates suggest that the economic annual burden is upward of $60 billion, with nearly half of that attributable to workplace costs, such as productivity loss.

"If an employee is taking a prescription painkiller, their cost on worker's comp goes up four times, and 25 percent of all prescription costs in workers comp are opioid painkillers," Hersman told CNBC.

Moreover, while only about half of employers have a written policy on using prescription drugs, according to the survey, nearly two-thirds believe prescription pills, like Vicodin and Percocet, cause more problems than illegal drugs.

"We recognize drug overuse as an issue in American workplaces," said Dexter Shurney, M.D., chief medical director and executive director of global health and wellness at Columbus, Indiana-based engine manufacturer Cummins.

Shurney said problems that arise from painkiller abuse are in many respects similar to problems that occur with alcohol abuse, and Cummins believes that programs to improve employee safety in the workplace have to include substance abuse of all kinds.

"We believe zero workplace incidents is the only ethically responsible target, and we have a duty to protect our employees from harming themselves and harming others," Shurney said. "Prevention is a good investment. Healthy employees miss fewer days of work and are more productive while they are here."

A drug company making millions off your pain
A drug company making millions off your pain   

The Chairman of the Senate Health Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), recently said, "This is a complex problem that calls for action by all who have a role in preventing opioid abuse and responding to this problem, whether it is doctors, the health department, law enforcement or families."

Alexander did not cite employers, and when asked by CNBC, an aide to Sen. Alexander said, "It is up to employers — not the federal government — to determine the best practices for managing their employees."

To try to deal with the issue, the NSC recommends that employers expand drug testing to include detection of opioid painkillers. The survey found that while 87 percent of employers conduct drug testing, only about 52 percent test for synthetic opioids.

"Beyond the loss of productivity, prescription abuse can cause impairment, injury and may lead employees to bad choices, such as theft or embezzlement from the employer," Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that non-medical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health-care costs.