Employer opportunities

​To combat the possibility of workers forming an addiction to painkillers, experts recommend that employers keep in touch with the injured worker and get the employee back to work as soon as possible.

Establishing an early return-to-work program is a growing trend. “The whole idea in workers’ compensation today is return-to-work,” said Ishita Sengupta, director of workers’ compensation at the National Academy of Social Insurance in Washington. “They need to see how the worker is faring, and how to get the worker back to the job.”

It is difficult for experts to determine how much an early return-to-work program would lead to a reduced risk of prescription drug abuse, if at all. However, such programs are “tremendously helpful” in getting injured employees back to work, according to David Deitz, M.D., the national medical director at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston.

Employers or supervisors should not simply send a letter or email, but should physically contact the injured worker to engage them, Deitz suggested. They should show the worker they are concerned about the injury and make clear to the employee the plan for him or her to return to work.

Any return-to-work program should be approached cautiously, however, especially if the worker is still experiencing pain or is taking painkillers. Employees should stay away from safety-sensitive tasks, such as driving a forklift, if they are taking narcotics, Deitz said. Additionally, sometimes the pain from the injury itself may be distracting, making it inappropriate for the person to resume certain duties.

Any injured worker who develops a drug abuse problem should be treated for both the addiction and the underlying disability and chronic pain, Deitz added. “Try to treat the whole package,” he said.

In states where prescription drug abuse may be a large problem, employers should contact public officials or their trade organizations to express their concerns, suggested Richard Victor, executive director at the Cambridge, MA-based Workers Compensation Research Institute.

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