The United States is awash in prescription pain medication. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl are just a few of the drugs prescribed for moderate to severe pain from surgery or injury, or to control pain related to a chronic health condition.

While there is often a clear and legitimate need for these drugs, taking opioids for long periods of time or in higher doses than prescribed increases the risk of addiction, overdose or death.  And, as the numbers of prescriptions have increased, so too has the rate of opioid addiction.

The CDC estimates that 46 people die daily from a prescription drug overdose and 7,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misuse. The CDC also states that prescription drug abusers are 40 times more likely to become heroin users.

Opioid addiction can happen to anyone — your neighbor, a friend or a work colleague. In fact, the National Safety Council (NSC) reported that three-quarters of those struggling with addiction are employed, yet only 39 percent of employers viewed prescription drug use as a threat to safety.

Employers can help by watching for these classic signs of opioid abuse:

  • Feelings of euphoria followed by extreme drowsiness.
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Constricted pupils
  • Confusion or poor judgment
  • Itching or flushed skin
  • Nodding off at random times or loss of consciousness

A variety of resources are available for employers concerned about the overuse of prescription opioids in their workplace. The National Safety Council offers simple steps employers can take to protect themselves and their employees. Additionally, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) has issued a set of guidelines for prescribing opioids in occupational health practices.

Good workers have been caught up in this epidemic and need a helping hand to step out of it. Employers can start by limiting access to opioids within their clinics and providing support for those who want and need it.

A portion of this article originally appeared on  Knowledge at Work, a resource for health and safety concerns, by UL EHS Sustainability.

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