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Employers urged to educate workers about dangers of opioid use

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People underestimate the dangers related to the use of opioid painkillers, a National Safety Council study released Wednesday finds, and the council's medical adviser urged employers to fill in the knowledge gap.

The online survey, which queried 1,000 people over the age of 18 during January and February, found that there was widespread confusion among respondents about the medications.

For example, when asked if they had taken or been prescribed an opioid painkiller in the past three years, 29% of respondents answered yes. Subsequently, when asked the same question after being shown a list of opioids including drugs such as codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, 42% of respondents indicated that they have.

During a news conference to discuss the study's findings, Dr. Donald Teater, medical adviser for the NSC, said that in addition to not understanding which drugs are opioid painkillers, many people underestimate their ability to do harm.

“Only 12% of the people taking opioid painkillers are concerned about becoming addicted,” he said.

Given this knowledge gap, it is incumbent on employers to educate employees about the dangers of opioid painkillers and look for warning signs of opioid abuse such as changes in behavior or increased missed time at work, Dr. Teater said.

“Opioid painkillers are a significant problem in the workplace,” Dr. Teater said, noting that an estimated $25 billion per year is lost by industry in the U.S. to opioid-related problems. “These are medications that are impairing, so even people that take them with a prescription for chronic or acute pain are likely impaired and should not be working in safety-sensitive positions.”