Abusing prescription painkillers in the workplace: Is there a cure?

The statistics are staggering.  Abuse of prescription painkillers is on the rise and reaching epidemic levels. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 37 percent of the 43,982 drug poisoning deaths in 2013 involved prescription painkillers. And of the 2.5 million ER visits in 2011, more than half were related to prescription drugs. Of the estimated 8.7 million people in America who reported abusing prescription medications, more than 5 million abused prescription painkillers. Abuse of painkillers is spreading to the workplace.

“The single biggest issue right now we see developing nationwide is drugs in the workplace. But it’s not centered around the illicit drugs, it’s really around the prescription drugs and prescription abuses,” says Danial Bravard, Associate Vice President of Risk Management and Safety at Memorial Hermann Health System. “What we’re finding is that about 70 percent of the people currently using these opioid-type drugs were never prescribed to them. They’re receiving them from a friend or family member.”

Opioids are semi-synthetic derivatives of opiates and are used to treat moderate to severe pain.  Both opioids and opiates reduce the intensity of pain signals to the brain and affect the areas of the brain that control emotions.

Types of Painkiller Graphic for 3.16.16

These medicines may be prescribed for a short period of time to treat pain caused by an injury, condition, or physical ailment.  They may also be prescribed for temporary pain relief following an accident or surgery. Pain is the most common reason people seek medical attention. In our quest to be pain free, we are creating a society of painkiller addicts.

2012 Opioid Deaths in Texas


According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD), drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually.  Substance abuse in the workplace puts everyone at risk for potential workplace accidents, injuries and death.  Some of the most common risks associated with painkiller use include driving vehicles to and from work; operating machinery and equipment; making critical errors and lost productivity from impaired focus or concentration. “Addiction to painkillers affects all areas of their lives. They’re not able to turn off their addiction when they go to work,” says Dr. Mike Leath, Medical Director of the Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center in Houston.

“In Occupational Safety, we view safety and operations very much connected,” says Bravard.  “Employers can’t operate safely if they have an impaired workforce.”

Abuse of prescription opioids can also put the employee at risk for health complications.

“Prescription opioids depress the respiratory system, so we have a lot of individuals that might be borrowing those types of pain relievers from family members, however they may have underlying medical conditions such as COPD, depression or sleep apnea,” adds Bravard.  “When you combine those drugs that were not prescribed to them along with other medications they might be taking, the outcome can sometimes result in death.

“At Memorial Hermann, we’re able to provide a complete solution for employers, from beginning to end,” says Bravard.  “We help those employers identify the employees that are at risk, we’re able to move those employees into a testing phase, but also to offer them a treatment process in the back end to return those employees back to work and make them more productive.”

Painkillers appear to be serving as a new gateway drug to illegal substances like heroin.  “The problem is heroin is taking its place for the opiates. So it’s not like the addiction goes away. The addiction changes,” adds Dr. Leath.

Memorial Hermann PaRC has a comprehensive approach to treating addiction.  “We’ll take patients when they’re acutely ill as opposed to some of the other facilities or places that will send you to a medical/surgical hospital to detox then they’ll bring patients to treatment. We have doctors here who are actually trained in detoxing patients,” says Dr. Leath

Memorial Hermann PaRC offers the educational, therapeutic and medical programs necessary for successful long-term recovery.  “We’ll take people who are acutely toxic, even overdoses, will bring them to Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center, get them through the detox process and teach them how to live and not even want the drugs,” says Dr. Leath.  “We’ll give them the skills to enter life and live life on life’s terms.”

Click here to learn more information about addiction to prescription painkillers.

Read the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging doctors to prescribe less potentially killer drugs.

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Tashika Varma