In 2015, 20,101 of the 52,404 drug overdose deaths in the United States were due to prescription opioids. The number of deaths attributed to prescription opioid use has quadrupled since 1999, and it is a number that is increasing from year to year. It is hard to say why doctors prescribe opioids so freely, but what can be established is that the use of these drugs on construction job sites is a very dangerous subject.
Are construction workers responsible for letting their employers know that they are using prescription opioids? What are the safety policies regarding the use of opioids on the job? As the opioid crisis expands, can doctors be held negligent for prescribing opioids to construction workers? This is a fairly complicated discussion, but it is critical that construction workers and company owners understand how opioids can affect construction safety, and who is responsible if something goes wrong.
When Is An Opioid Prescribing Doctor Being Negligent?
There are three sides to the discussion of work site safety as it applies to the opioid crisis; the doctor, the worker, and the safety policies of the companies. We are going to start with the doctor’s side of this discussion because, as frustrating as it may seem, the doctors involved are least likely to be held negligent if opioid use causes a problem on a construction worksite.
In order for a doctor to be in compliance with the federal and state laws regarding prescribing opioids, the doctor must:
- Have the proper licenses to be able to prescribe opioids
- Have conducted a complete physical examination of the patient
- Document the patient’s medical history to ensure there are no indications of addiction
- Follow state laws regarding the frequency of prescribing opioid medications
- Ensure there are no alternative ways to handle the pain such as surgery or injections
The opioid crisis has put a very bright spotlight on doctors who prescribe pain medication without seeing a patient, or who prescribe pain medication without first attempting to handle the pain in other ways. But if a doctor follows the state and federal laws regarding addictive pain medication, then a doctor cannot be held negligent if those opioids threaten worksite safety. It is up to the worker to disclose their treatment to their employer, and the employer to have policies in place to protect the job site.
The Reality Of These Pain Meds And Job-Related Pain
The National Safety Council (NSC) released a report that found that workers who were prescribed a one-week supply of opioid pain medication immediately after sustaining an injury, were twice as likely to wind up on disability within 12 months, as workers who did not receive pain medication. In 2011, 25 percent of prescription claims through workers’ compensation programs were for opioid pain medication. Prescription pain medications are a frequent tool for doctors to use in light of work-related injuries, but the long-term success rate for these medications is very low.
The NSC was also able to positively link the prescription of pain medications to drug overdose deaths among workers in at least 15 cases throughout the country. While these deaths cover a wide variety of industries, the point is that automatically prescribing pain medication is not the answer to treating worker injuries. However, it is interesting to note that in those 15 court cases, the defendants were not always the doctor. Treating hospitals, contractors, and even job owners were named as defendants as the families of deceased workers tried to find someone to blame for the death of their loved one.
Pain Medication Usage In Construction
One of the most disturbing trends related to opioids in construction is the growing number of doctors who are prescribing these powerful pain medications to help with the normal aches and pains that come with years of construction work. It is one thing to get pain medication to help after a serious injury or surgery, but pain medication to help get relief from the deep tissue damage that repeated construction activities can create can be problematic.
Any doctor who is licensed to prescribe pain medications can give a construction worker opioids to help handle the pain, but that is not a long-term solution. Another problem is workers getting pain medications from multiple sources such as dentists and specialists. After a while, a worker’s medicine cabinet can hold quite a collection of addictive and potentially dangerous opioids.
The state of New York is working to crack down on patients who get pain medications from multiple doctors, but it is a long and difficult process to find the abusers. In construction, workers often have to see a wide variety of medical professionals for their injuries, and their regular aches and pains. If a worker is getting medication from all of their doctors, then the potential for overdose is significantly increased.
The Delicate Process Of Creating Work Site Safety Policies
What about the contractor’s side of this opioid crisis? It is common for construction companies to have a zero tolerance for drug abuse, but that zero tolerance is not always the best solution to these types of problems. It is easy to test for opioids, but a positive test does not always mean that the worker should be punished.
Should every worker who uses prescription pain medications be given the same treatment by the company? If there is a zero tolerance for drug abuse, then does that apply to testing positive for opioids? The U.S. Department of Labor would say the answers to those questions should be handled on a worker-by-worker basis.
While there are workers who abuse opioids, there are also workers who use their medication responsibly to be able to perform their work duties. When a worker tests positive for opioids, it can be unfair for a company to consistently respond with strict punishment. It would be more to the company’s advantage to investigate each situation and determine the real danger a worker on opioids poses to themselves and others on the job site.
Each Worker Has To Be Treated Differently
A worker with a history of drug and alcohol abuse that has led to job site incidents should be treated differently than a worker who has a history of being a reliable and responsible employee. Each company should keep a close watch on workers who take prescription pain medications, but punishing good workers just trying to ease the pain is not a fair policy.
The question of who is responsible when someone dies of prescription medication overdose is not an easy one to answer. Many of those cases wind up in civil courts, and it is up to the juries to determine who was negligent. If a doctor follows the laws pertaining to prescribing opioids, then it is uncommon for those doctors to be found negligent.
Should a doctor be held liable if a construction worker on prescription medications causes a worksite incident? Doctors prescribe medication under the idea that the patient will follow the instructions that come with the prescription. If a construction worker is abusing pain medication, then it could be said that the construction company should be responsible for identifying and handling any problems.
As the opioid crisis continues to become more intense, construction companies around the country are finding themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war that tries to pin responsibility for opioid-related incidents on one party or another. It is a situation that must be addressed, but it cannot be addressed with sweeping rules that affect every worker the same way.