Worker health and wellness Drugs

Opioids and the workforce

COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions create new hurdles


How to find help

To help workers with opioid issues, particularly during the pandemic, KCA has recorded more toolbox talks on the topic and assisted workers in recovery gain access to online meetings. 

“We didn’t just sit in the corner and hide,” O’Brien said. “We’ve tried to do as much as possible.”

CDC, NIOSH and NSC also provide resources for workers and employers. 

Despite reduced capacity at treatment centers because of physical distancing protocol and delays or cancellations of in-person treatment, Cooper said some states have increased online options. 

“The bright side of it – if there is such a thing as a bright side – is a lot of state governments took some exceptional action to increase telehealth mechanisms, and that includes treatment facilities,” she said. “It’s on us now to make sure those stay permanent because they were really helpful.” 

Cooper said employers should focus on clear, consistent and supportive communication to help guide workers. 

“Try to establish a tone that helps people and consistently provides resources,” she said. “You want to get people the help they need.” 

Employers also should promote employee assistance programs and provide trusted resources for assistance. These can include NSC’s Addressing the Opioid Crisis and NIOSH’s Opioids in the Workplace, as well as 24-hour hotlines such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline – (800) 662-4357.

According to NSC’s downloadable Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit, complexities exist when employers target an entire workforce via a prevention program. Workers can face very different risk factors – biological, psychological and social – so they’ll respond differently to intervention efforts. 

“There’s a lot of tools in the toolbox,” O’Brien said. “There’s not just one solution for a person. Just because you try one of the tools and it doesn’t work – maybe you relapse – don’t think it’s a dead end. There are other tools and solutions out there.”

Up to the task

When O’Brien sees numbers like the ones reported by CDC, he doesn’t get angry or sad. “I feel motivated,” he said. “We want to keep fighting this battle until it’s eliminated, until it’s gone. We’re ready for the challenge.” 

One of the most encouraging changes O’Brien said he has seen in recent years is more construction employers confronting the opioid issue head-on. 

“The way I grade it is feedback and comments I hear,” he said. “One employer is in his 70s. He said, ‘It’s the first time workers are coming up to me, and we’re talking about their health issues and addiction battles.’ This would’ve never happened four, five years ago.”

O’Brien said employers view their workers as family and want to know what’s going on in their lives. 

“When I hear comments like that,” O’Brien said, “it fires me up to do more work.”  



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