pills.jpgAnyone who’s used pain killers knows how helpful they can be when it comes to a host of medical conditions.

But like everything in life, too much of a good thing can sometimes come back to haunt you.

In the past few years, the use of pain killers by employees has exploded, and while you probably won’t be fired for taking such drugs on the job, you need to know they can impact your safety, the safety of others, your job, and potentially your career.

Diagnostic testing giant Quest Diagnostics, that does many employee drug screenings for companies, late last week reported some astonishing statistics on prescription opiates, found in drugs such as morphine, codeine, etc., from its data base of 5.5 million worker urine tests:

* an 18 percent jump in opiate positives in the general U.S. workforce in a single year (2008 to 2009),
* and a more than 40 percent climb from 2005 to 2009.

What I found even more interesting were the results from Quest’s at post-accident testing. In many cases, employers give workers a drug test after they’re involved in a workplace accident to see if intoxication of some sort was a factor. If they can prove the drugs caused the accident or injury, then they could get out of paying a workers’ compensation claim.

Quest found that last year:

* post-accident drug tests found opiates up to four times more often than pre-employment tests (3.7 percent in post-accident as compared to 0.78 percent in pre-employment tests), suggesting that these drugs may be playing a role in workplace accidents.

“Evidence of increased opiate use is now appearing in the workplace as well as the ER,” said Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Employer Solutions, Quest Diagnostics. “Because more U.S. workers are performing their duties while taking prescription opiates, employers, particularly those with safety-sensitive workers, should note this trend and take appropriate steps to ensure worker and public safety.”

Such drugs can lead to impairment on the job, and can potentially be harmful.

“We believe that workers taking opiates – regardless of the amount – need to take into consideration the consequences of long-term use including gradual progression of intake, emotional numbness, delayed reaction/responses and decreased performance,” said Clare W. Kavin, administrative director of The Waismann Method, an opiate dependency treatment center. “Depending on the industry, taking opiates on the job can pose additional dangers, such as physical harm, as the ability to make decisions becomes delayed. For others, including professionals in the finance industry who need to make quick decisions and think very clearly, opiates can cloud their ability to perform certain tasks.”

Kavin said there isn’t enough patient-doctor discussions when it comes to the long-term impact of taking pain killers. And patients go along, she added, because they “have no tolerance today for discomfort and seek out prescription narcotics as a form of immediate relief.”

Clearly, there is often a medical need for pain killers and workers should know their rights.

While you can be fired for taking illegal drugs, employers are not allowed to take any adverse action against you if you’re on prescribed drugs, legal experts say. That’s not to say employers don’t thwart the law in this regard, or suddenly start to view you less favorably. And this becomes even more of an issue in a tough economy when there are few openings and lots of people looking for work.

The other thing to keep in mind is the amount of opiates you take even if they are legal. One case in North Carolina last year involved a carpenter who was seriously injured after a fall. Opiates were found after his drug test and the employer tried to deny him workers’ comp claiming he was impaired at the time. In this case, the court found in the employee’s favor because there was no evidence of how much of the drugs were in his system. If it did indeed show high levels of the narcotic he likely would have been denied benefits.

And, added Scott Behren, an employment attorney from Weston, FL, even though your employer is “not normally allowed to inquire about drug use, unless an employee tests positive to a drug test, then employee can be required to disclose what drugs they are on.”

Also, he continued, “if an employee is on drugs and it hampers their ability to do their work substantially especially driving, the employer can take action whether it be a suspension of possibly a light duty position that does not endanger the public.”

But you may be entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act to have your company make accommodations for your drug use, or drug addiction, even if the drugs are illegal. (See my recent MSNBC.com column on the issue.)

So, how do you know if you have a problem?

Waismann’s Kavin offered “three key indicators that should immediately alert someone that opiates are getting in the way of their professional career or job”:

1. When an employee realizes he/she is putting in extra effort to complete simple day-to-day tasks
2. When performance is being affected or compromised
3. When the care for quality of work has diminished

It’s really important to reach out if you need help folks, for the sake of your job, your coworkers, your family, your life.

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