Opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine are regularly prescribed for pain relief. The prevalence of these prescriptions makes it easier for people to access extremely powerful opioids legally or illegally. In 2019, 14.2% of Canadians reported having used opioids, either prescribed and illegally obtained, some time in the previous year.
In the context of work, opioids are a complicated issue. On one hand, opioids are effective pain relief medication that help many injured workers. On the other hand, the use of opioids can affect an employee’s effectiveness, mood, behaviour, and overall wellbeing. Opioids at work pose additional health and safety risks that employers must be aware of and promptly address. Employers can manage opioid hazards and risks at work through strong employee support systems, well-organized accommodation policies and practices, and general injury prevention.
What hazards do opioids create at work?
Employees who develop a substance dependency may turn to illegal means of acquiring opioids, like sourcing old prescriptions from co-workers or purchasing uncontrolled opioids from an illegal manufacturer. The amount of additives in street drugs is often unknown by both the illegal manufacturer and the end user, leading to overdose deaths across the country. In 2022, there were an average of 20 opioid toxicity deaths in Canada each day, up from an average 10 deaths per day in 2019.
In light of recent issues, several jurisdictions have implemented opioid-related protections:
- The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act protects those trying to help someone experiencing an overdose.
- Ontario also updated workplace health and safety legislation, requiring opioid overdose rescue kits be provided in high-risk workplaces.
Additionally, employers should ensure someone in the workplace is trained to administer naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and should implement related safety procedures.
Even when administered as prescribed, opioids can affect an employee physically and mentally. Opioid users may experience slowed reaction times, drowsiness, confusion, and other conditions that negatively affect their ability to perform their work safely. When an employee is impaired at work, they put themselves and others at risk. Existing workplace hazards become more dangerous because of the user’s slowed reactions. Drowsiness and fatigue also increase the risk of workplace injuries and fatalities.
Employers should ensure there is a mechanism in place for employees to report suspected impairment in themselves and others. Providing a way to remain anonymous will promote honesty and likely increase employee reports of opioid-related risks and hazards. Improving the workforce’s trust in HR also helps employees feel safe bringing up problems.
Who is most likely to be affected by opioid-related issues?
Opioids are commonly prescribed for pain relief, which means industries with high injury rates are at greater risk of opioid use and opioid-related deaths. Due to the physical nature of the work, the construction industry has high workplace injury rates. It also deals with more opioid-related issues than other industries. Between 2018 and 2020, nearly one in 13 opioid-related deaths in Ontario occurred among construction workers. Almost 80 percent of those construction workers experienced a pain-related condition or injury in the five years before their death.
Support Over Stigma
The opioid crisis does not discriminate among whom it affects. When working to address hazards and risks associated with opioid use, employers must consider all employees, without stereotype or bias. Employees who use opioids may not align with stereotypes sometimes associated with substance abuse.
Substance use disorder is a medical condition. Employers who become aware of an employee potentially struggling with such a condition have a duty to inquire. If addiction-related needs are verified, employers also have a duty to accommodate the employee up to the point of undue hardship.
Canadians struggle with opioid-related problems, and those problems can affect the workplace or even begin there. Download our FREE Guide to Understanding and Addressing Opioid Risks in the Workplace to learn how you can intervene and work to improve the situation. This guide will help you understand opioids and the related risks, how to develop plans to address opioid use, and the importance of regularly reviewing these plans and programs to ensure they remain effective.
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