Opioid Use and Abuse by Injured Workers in Pennsylvania

September 29, 2016

There is a hidden workplace epidemic of abuse of prescription opioid painkillers and it is having a tremendous impact on workplace safety and employee productivity. When a worker suffers a painful injury and qualifies for workers’ compensation benefits, they will most likely receive a prescription for pain medication by their doctor. Increasingly, those pain killers are in the form of opioids, which are the cause of a massive drug overdose epidemic in the United States. In 2014, more people died from a drug overdose than in any other year on record. There were 28,000 overdose deaths involving opioids in 2014, and more than half of those were from prescription opioids according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Employees who get hurt at work can end up unexpectedly addicted to pain killers

The CDC reports that the most commonly abused and overdosed opioids are obtained by prescription. According to the CDC, health care providers wrote nearly a quarter of a billion prescriptions for opioid pain medications, which is about enough for every single adult in America to have their own bottle of pills. Workers who are in a lot of pain, after a workplace injury may be prescribed opioids by their doctor. The problem with opioid pain medications such as methadone, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone is that they human body builds up a tolerance to the medications. This means that it requires increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the same level of pain relief. Workers can also become dependent on the drug, and they begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal when there is no more of the drug in their system. The danger of developing a higher and higher tolerance for the drug is that higher doses of an opioid can be deadly, hence the high number of overdose deaths.

The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that prescription pain killers are having a negative impact on the workplace. When workers misuses painkillers it can cause an increase in the following:

  • Workers’ compensation costs
  • The length of the worker’s disability
  • Increased risk of additional accidents and errors at work
  • ER visits and other medical care
  • Cost for intervention and treatment
  • Cost for screening and testing

The NSC estimates that prescription drugs account for about 19 percent of workers’ compensation medical costs. In 2009, OxyContin® was the top drug in workers’ compensation as measured by dollars paid.

Prescription drug abuse can cause an increased risk of:

  • Motor vehicle crashes in the workplace and in driving to and from work
  • Operating heavy machinery on the job
  • Making critical errors at work
  • Decreased productivity, pace, focus and concentration

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, there were 166,102 work injuries and illness cases in 2015, which is down by 11,000 from the previous year. The construction industry has the most injuries and fatalities, and the most common workplace-related injuries are musculoskeletal, slip and fall or falls from height, repetitive motion and burn injuries.

A study conducted by the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WRCI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reports in a study of opioid prescriptions in workers’ compensation cases throughout 25 states that among claims with opioids, the average amounts of opioids received by injured workers in Pennsylvania and two other states, were the highest in the study. The study also found that opioid use was prevalent among nonsurgical claims with more than seven days of lost time. Approximately 65 to 80 percent of these injured workers with pain medications received opioids in most states. WCRI also reports that for approximately 80 percent of injured workers who are prescribed pain medication, the prescription is for an opioid. When patients start on opioids, a significant number of them will continue to take them for as many as six to 12 months later.

Dr. Vennela Thumula, a policy analyst at WCRI and a co-author of the study, said that the research is intended to help state officials, doctors, insurance companies and other stake holders identify whether or not their state’s opioid usage might be outside of the norm.

Pennsylvania has among the highest percentages of injured workers that become long-term users of opioids of any state in the U.S. according to WCRI.

On August 22, 2016, Pennsylvania launched a prescription drug monitoring program, which is a statewide database that will collect and store information about potentially addictive drugs such as opioid pain killers. While the new PDMP itself will not prevent new drug addictions, it is an important tool to help fight the prescription drug abuse epidemic. Prescribers, dispensers, law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners will have access to the database, which will curb the practice of doctor shopping, and identify pill mills.

When a worker has suffered a serious injury and they are going to be treated for the pain, injured workers should be aware of the dangers associated with taking opioid pain medications. They can work with their doctors to find alternatives to opioids especially if the individual has dealt with other addictions in the past.

A knowledgeable Philadelphia workers’ compensation lawyer from the law firm of Larry Pitt & Associates is ready to consult with you about your workplace injury today.

The Philadelphia workers’ compensation attorneys of Larry Pitt & Associates have the help you need when you have suffered a serious workplace injury. You are invited to contact us at 888.PITT.LAW, or fill out our contact form to schedule your appointment. We proudly serve Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties.