Balancing Privacy and Safety in a Drug-Free Workplace

Haley Bass

Can your injured worker’s treatment plan cause more harm than good?

With up to 85% of injured workers getting treated with narcotic painkillers (opioids), the workplace is at an increasing risk of accidents and injuries. Opioids, a group of painkillers that include oxycodone and morphine, are legally prescribed by physicians for pain relief, but these drugs come with a few negative side effects. Beyond the fact that they’re highly addictive, opioids can also cause confusion, drowsiness, and nausea. Not great if your employees are driving or operating heavy machinery.

On August 10, the president said he's ready to declare the country's opioid crisis a national emergency, understanding that this has increasingly become a serious problem with no signs of slowing down. A crisis of this scale will take time to resolve, but any steps we take toward combating the issue are steps in the right direction. 

Here’s what you need to be aware of when it comes to opioid use, and how you can keep your employees safe.

The Negative Impact of Opioid Use

There’s nothing wrong with using medication for treatment. The real issue is when the medicine disrupts the safety of the workplace. Not all employees are using opioids from the safety of their homes – nearly half of users polled in a National Safety Council (NSC) study said they participated in a potentially unsafe activity while using opioids.

  • 39% went to work
  • 35% drove a vehicle
  • 14% operated heavy machinery

When an injured worker is prescribed opioids, the impact goes beyond the increased accident risk. The NSC found that injured workers who are prescribed opioids have four times the average total claim costs as other workers treated without opioids. And employers have sometimes been found financially responsible when an injured worker fatally overdoses on their prescribed painkillers. 

Another issue is the addictive nature of the drugs. Opioids not only relieve pain, they target the brain’s reward center, producing euphoric effects in the body. If an injured worker gets addicted to opioids, they could find ways to continue taking the drugs after their prescribed limit. An employer would have no way to know this for certain since most drug screens don’t test for opioids.

So how can you let your employees legally get the treatment they need, while keeping the rest of the workplace safe? This is where it gets a little tricky. To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and state discrimination laws, you have to find the balance between respecting an injured workers’ privacy and doing the best thing for the safety of the workforce. 

The Balance between Privacy and Safety

Making decisions in the moment can seem like a personal attack to the employee. Instead, determine how you plan to handle opioids in the workplace before it becomes an issue. Here are some potential solutions that avoid discrimination and prioritize safety.

Implement a Drug-Free Workplace Policy

For their drug and alcohol policy, employers need to define which drugs are prohibited, the consequences of using them, and what resources employees can use if they need help. The policy should also include a level of personal communication. Employers should explain why this policy exists, how it benefits everyone, and that the safety of the workforce comes before anything else.

If an injured worker is prescribed opioids for their treatment, it’s their responsibility to ensure that the medication won’t impair their ability to work. If it does, the employee will need to take the appropriate action – whether it’s to call in sick, notify their supervisor, etc. – to avoid unsafe work practices.

The illegal use and abuse of opioids or other prescription medications should be strictly prohibited, with appropriate disciplinary action if job performance deteriorates and/or other accidents occur.

Educate Your Employees

Help your employees understand the risks and hazards of opioid use. Let them know that your drug-free policy isn’t just about benefiting the bottom line, but keeping the workplace safe. There have been far too many incidents of overdoses and drug-induced accidents destroying a person’s livelihood or leaving a family without a mother or father. If an injured worker is prescribed opioids, make sure they know how to use them responsibly, or help them find another treatment solution if addiction is a concern.

Offer Accommodations

An injured worker using opioids for treatment may not be able to complete their full job functions. Not only because of the drugs, but also from the pain that requires the drugs. Because the opioids are potentially being used for a disability, employers must remember their obligation to accommodate employees. The solution depends on the situation, but options include rearranging or modifying job duties, providing leave time, or transferring an employee to another position.


There are other options when it comes to injury care – Concentra tends to utilize physical therapy for an active treatment focus – but if your injured workers are prescribed opioids, you need to know how to manage them in the workplace. Start with these solutions, but connect with a Concentra work health expert if you need to discuss more options to keep your employees safe.