Safety and OSHA News

Prescription painkiller overdoses skyrocket for women

Men are still more likely to die of a prescription painkiller overdose than women. But women are catching up. Why is that? And what does that have to do with workplace safety?

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says since 1999, deaths among women because of prescription painkiller overdoses increased more than 400%.

This statistic increased for men, but not as much: a 265% jump.

The increase for all adults correlates closely to the increased prescribing of these medications during the past decade.

Unfortunately, these deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. For every woman who dies of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 go to the ER for misuse or abuse.

Women are seeing a larger increase in painkiller overdoses than men because they:

  • are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed painkillers, be given higher doses and use them for longer periods of time than men
  • may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men, and
  • may be more likely than men to engage in “doctor shopping” (obtaining prescriptions from multiple physicians).

Does this correlate to increasing aches and pains as more people become senior citizens? Nope. Women between the ages of 25 and 54 are most likely to go to the ER because of prescription painkiller misuse. In other words, it’s those women who are most likely to be working.

What can you do?

There are several reasons why employers should care about this disturbing trend. These workers:

  • are a safety risk to themselves and others
  • are more likely to file workers’ comp and disability claims
  • have higher healthcare expenses
  • are absent more often, and
  • have lower productivity.

Of course, you can’t go to every employee’s doctor’s appointment with them to make sure they’re not developing a painkiller problem. But you can educate employees about prescription painkiller addiction. It’s every bit as serious as addiction to illegal drugs and alcohol.

Drug testing, particularly for employees in safety sensitive positions, is also a possibility. However, employers have to be careful about this.

It’s true that illegal drug use includes misuse of legal prescription drugs, and employers can conduct tests to detect illegal drug use.

However, an employer may not ask what prescription drugs an individual is taking before making a conditional job offer. One way to avoid liability is to conduct drug tests after making an offer. An employer can legally withdraw an offer of employment on the basis of illegal drug use, according to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1992.

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