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The medicine that you were prescribed as a painkiller might temporarily relieve your pain—but then it might kill you.

Sadly, this is how opioid addiction begins for many people. Opioids, which are chemically-synthesized substances that produce morphine-like effects to relieve medical pain, are highly addictive—and oftentimes overprescribed. Many people do not realize that they are at risk or have an opioid addiction until it is too late.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, today nearly 21 million of Americans are living with substance abuse disorder, and 75 percent of these Americans are employed. Workers with substance abuse disorders miss nearly 50 percent more work days than their peers, and healthcare costs for employees who misuse or abuse prescription drugs are three times higher than that for an average employee.

Perhaps most harrowing of all, the number of individuals who fatally overdose on opioids each year has overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional death among adults in the United States.

The opioid crisis in America is reaching an epidemic, and it’s affecting truck drivers.

How do opioids and trucking relate? Sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle for hours on end day after day, year after year can lead to poor circulation, arthritis, back pain and joint disease. It is not uncommon for doctors to prescribe or over-prescribe opioids in order to combat the pain. However, these types of prescriptions are not synonymous with chronic pain. You may be prescribed a potentially addictive painkiller for procedures such as standard dental work.

Truckers using opioids is of particular concern. If they are using opioids on the job, then this does not just affect the driver, but everyone on the roads. Side effects of opioid use that can affect driving include drowsiness, slowed reaction time, reduced coordination and blurred vision – all effects that can majorly hamper a driver’s ability to maneuver a vehicle safely and effectively.

On Nov. 13, 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy and Compliance announced that it would begin testing truck drivers and other “safety-sensitive” transportation employees for four prescription opioids, including hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone and oxycodone. This is in addition to the substances on the existing DOT drug-testing panel. All employers regulated by the DOT are now required to begin testing for all of these substances as of Jan. 1, 2018.

While this is a positive step forward, there are still other steps employers should take in order to protect themselves and their employees from opioid abuse.

How trucking fleets can combat the dangers of opioids

Enacting a strong company drug policy is a critical first step in reinforcing a lack of tolerance for opioid abuse in the workplace. As noted before, with 75 percent of illegal drug users in the U.S. being employed, you cannot afford to sweep the issue of opioid usage under the rug. A drug policy demonstrates a vested interest in employee safety and a healthy work environment.

Include opioids on your non-DOT drug test program. Although the DOT’s addition of four prescription opioids to its drug-testing panel is a positive change forward, it is not a bad idea to include them on your company testing program as well—especially for opioids that are not included on the DOT’s testing panel.

For truck drivers, it is especially important for safety managers to stay abreast of their employees’ health, especially post-surgery or injury. Make sure that your employees are keeping you in the loop regarding what they are doing for pain management, including any painkillers that they may be taking. Of course, you will want to be mindful of HIPPA and personal privacy laws. This extra knowledge can be the difference between a fleet full of safe drivers versus a fleet with even just one driver that is taking or addicted to painkillers. Educate your drivers and workers so they understand what questions to ask their doctors when pain management is required, and inform physicians of their job responsibilities.

In many cases, prescription pain medication is only needed for one or a few days. After that, most pain can be managed with over the counter medications that will not affect safe work or driver performance. Consult your doctor. In all states, driving under the influence of prescription pain medication is illegal. When driving or working while taking pain medications, individuals do not always comprehend the safety errors and misjudgments they are committing that may put themselves and others in jeopardy.

Train your supervisors to spot the first signs of drug misuse via reasonable suspicion testing. Conduct a drug and/or alcohol test when you have reason to believe that an employee is misusing opioids or another prohibited substance. It is a best practice to have at least two properly trained and qualified supervisors witness the conduct on each shift where drivers are supervised. In addition to improving personal safety, having at least two properly trained and qualified supervisors provides several advantages, including helping to prevent accusations of harassment and providing justification that the test is more valid due to multiple individuals documenting and witnessing the suspicion.

Educate your workers to ensure proper disposal of leftover painkillers so that they do not take them if they don’t need them or allow them to fall into the wrong hands. You can request a Stericycle pill return envelope from http://safety.nsc.org/stop-everyday-killers-supplies.

Above all else, it is crucial to recognize the impact of prescription drugs on the bottom line. A fleet devoid of drivers addicted to painkillers is a safer fleet. You will minimize claims and litigations fees from collisions and accidents, along with worker’s compensation and healthcare costs for employees. Your employees will miss less work, leading to an increase in driver productivity and efficiency. Above all else, you will be making major strides forward in improving your company’s safety culture, leading to a more profitable bottom line and happier, safer employees.

The opioid crisis is affecting everyone’s safety. Help your drivers recognize the unsafe driving performance in other drivers that are under the influence so they can “steer clear” to avoid a crash.

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