Opioid testing helps curb workers comp claimsReprints
SALT LAKE CITY—When Jacobsen Construction Co. Inc. started an opioid drug testing program last year, the firm gained a tool to help its 400 workers avoid accidents.
Mat Guerrero, safety manager for the Salt Lake City company, said Jacobsen has long conducted employee drug tests. But with opioid use on the rise among construction workers in the area, Jacobsen expanded its program to keep impaired workers out of hazardous work sites.
“It used to be everyone was concerned about illegal drugs, and now the ones we worry about are in people's medicine cabinets,” said Mr. Guerrero, whose company does pre-employment, random and post-accident testing.
Opioid testing is becoming more common among employers looking to increase job safety and reduce workers compensation costs, experts say.
“Avoiding one really serious claim due to an impaired worker basically pays for your drug testing program,” said Mark Semonisck, senior loss control consultant for Kansas City, Mo.-based brokerage Lockton Cos. L.L.C.
Quest Diagnostics Inc., a national provider of medical testing, says about 12% of workplace drug screenings it conducted during the first half of this year included prescription opioid testing, up from about 6% in 2006. That growth tracks an increase in opioid prescriptions nationwide, said Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics' employer solutions division.
In a report released this month, Madison, N.J.-based Quest said positive results for oxycodones, such as OxyContin, have in-creased 96% in employer screenings from 2005 to the first quarter of this year, while positive tests increased 47% for hydrocodone, a drug type that includes Vicodin. Employees were more likely to test positive for prescription opioids in random or post-accident drug tests than in pre-employment screenings, the firm said.
Mr. Sample said opioid testing seems to be gaining traction in industries that use heavy machinery, such as manufacturing, and in medical fields where employees have regular access to prescription drugs. He believes more employers should consider whether opioid testing might improve job performance and safety records for their workers.
“Anything that an employer can do to mitigate the risk of having an accident is going to reduce the incidence of accidents in the workplace, and consequently workers comp claims,” Mr. Sample said.
Mr. Semonisck of Lockton said most of his clients conduct five-panel drug screenings, which test for marijuana; cocaine; amphetamines; phencyclidine, also known as PCP; and opiates, such as codeine and morphine.
Opioids—which are synthetic opiates—typically are detected in a drug test called an expanded opiate panel.
Mr. Semonisck said it's difficult to quantify how many accidents are prevented by drug testing. However, he said it helps deter drug abuse, because impairment could cost workers their jobs or workers comp benefits after an accident.
“People know they could be caught, and their benefits could be terminated,” he said.
Mike Farrand, workers comp medical cost containment director of the strategic outcomes practice for Willis Group Holdings P.L.C. in Radnor, Pa., agreed that the deterrent effect is beneficial for containing workers comp costs.
Workers “might think twice about putting in a fraudulent claim if they know they're going to be tested,” said Mr. Farrand, whose brokerage recommends screenings for its clients.
Mr. Guerrero said opioid drug testing at Jacobsen has helped the company identify whether an employee's prescription drug use could put him or her in danger at a job site.
Because of medical privacy laws, the construction firm relies on Salt Lake City-based drug testing firm Workforce QA to determine whether positive opioid results stem from abuse or prescription use. Medical review officers at the testing company weigh results for each case.
Jacobsen works with “safety-sensitive” employees—those that have a legitimate need for pain medications—to help reduce the risk for impairment at work. For instance, an employee might talk with his or her doctor about switching medications, Mr. Guerrero said.
In addition to testing, Mr. Farrand said companies can work with their insurer or third-party administrator to audit prescriptions for their employer group and determine whether opioids are being prescribed too often. Narcotic contracts—in which patients agree to careful opioid use under physician monitoring—also can help curb abuse, he said.
Mr. Farrand said testing program costs can be difficult to manage for companies that have high employee turnover rates. But he believes the price may be worth it for reducing a company's accident risk.
“It's an investment an employer has to make,” he said.