LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni


“Potentially habit-forming prescription pain medications – opioids – have replaced aspirin in many medicine cabinets, a circumstance that could jeopardize safety on the job,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Before asking your health care provider to write a prescription for these drugs, discuss your line of work and associated safety concerns and consider pain management strategies that do not involve drugs. Physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga and losing weight may resolve or ease your pain, making it possible for you to use less medication.”

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are synthetic narcotics that have chemical properties similar to those found in opium. They are the most powerful pain relievers on the market. Opioids like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone) make it possible for many people dealing with injuries and chronic illness to work and lead productive lives. In the United States, these drugs top the list of most prescribed medications.

At the same time, they are often misused and are among the most common causes of accidental death. Overdoses have skyrocketed. In 2008, nearly 15,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives to prescription pain relievers. That’s more than three times the number killed by these drugs just a decade ago.

Help Is Available

Workplace substance abuse programs can help protect employers and employees from the consequences of abuse and misuse of prescription pain relievers and other medications as well as alcohol and illegal drugs.

The LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division can help develop workplace substance abuse programs tailored to the unique needs and challenges of specific workplaces. For more information, call 202-628-5465. Pamphlets, booklets and program materials about various aspects of substance abuse and drug-free workplace programs can be ordered through the LHSFNA’s website at clicking on Publications.

In the workplace, random drug tests and post-accident tests find more employees testing positive for prescription opioid use. Results from more than five million urine drug tests showed an 18 percent jump in positives in one year’s time (2008 to 2009) and a climb of more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2009. In post-accident testing, opioids were found up to four times more often than in pre-employment tests.

How Opioids Work

Opioids interact with pain receptors located in the brain and spinal cord. This can lessen the discomfort of common construction injuries like sprains, strains and broken bones as well as symptoms of arthritis, headaches and cramps. However, drowsiness, dizziness and nausea are also common side effects of opioids, and prescriptions usually come with warnings to exercise caution when driving, operating or working around machinery. Failure to do so can lead to injury and death. Despite the danger, some workers who are legitimately using opiods choose to stay on the clock creating a greater risk for themselves and their co-workers. Others may be inappropriately using these drugs to experience euphoria, an opioid side effect that can lead to their illicit purchase and misuse. Regardless, workers taking opioids and remaining on the job risk their safety and the safety of others.

Opioid Addiction

While most people take opioid medications without becoming addicted, genetic predisposition and environmental factors like stress lead others to get hooked. Signs of addiction include:

  • Loss of control over medication use
  • Building tolerance and steadily needing more of the drug to feel its effects
  • Taking medication for other reasons besides pain, such as when depressed
  • Taking medication that was prescribed for another person

“Even if addiction and misuse are not issues, prescription pain medication in the workplace can be dangerous and can cause problems for you,”says Sabitoni. “Make sure you understand your employer’s drug free workplace policy so that you know what is required of employees taking pain medication.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]