HR Management, HR Policies & Procedures, Q&A

Opioids Hitting Manufacturing Industry Hard

Today we are joined by Jenn Callaway, VP of Research at MAPI to discuss opioids in the manufacturing industry. This industry has been hit hard by the epidemic, and the HR Daily Advisor wanted to learn more.

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HR Daily Advisor: According to your research, opioids are the leading cause of death for your average working age American. Is that trend likely to continue?

Callaway: When you look at the data and the velocity at which the death rate is climbing, it’s hard to imagine it leveling off immediately without very drastic social, policy, and medical interventions. Drug overdose deaths, two-thirds of which are related to opioids use, have tripled from 1999 to 2016. Preliminary data for 2017 represents a concerning increase of 13% and the number is likely to increase given more incomplete cases that are being investigated. The sharpest increase in recent years is due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

HR Daily Advisor: Can you tell me a little bit about how opioids are affecting  business in general?

Callaway: Manufacturing is a key driver of the U.S. economy, but many companies are struggling to find enough skilled workers for essential production, engineering, and research roles. Opioid abuse is exacerbating this issue.

Research has found that as many as 2 million jobs could go unfilled in the next decade. Many of these jobs are safety critical roles and require preemployment and random drug testing. Job candidates who cannot pass a drug test are simply not able to safely fill these roles. Unfilled jobs have a negative impact on manufacturers by reducing their productivity and growth. But, more importantly, it also has a negative impact on the standard of living in the United States where manufacturing jobs offer Americans a stable career, competitive wages, and better benefits than similar paying industries.

Many drug users are employed. The use of prescription opioids introduces a new challenge to employers. Authorized prescribed use of a drug can potentially cause impairment during work hours. According to the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, drug use among the employee population leads to absenteeism, lower employee productivity, and higher employee turnover. In the manufacturing industry, there is a heightened concern about workplace safety and how drug use erodes the company’s ability to create and maintain a safe work environment for all employees.

HR Daily Advisor: In your report, you ask why more people are not talking about the impact of the drug crisis on the workforce and on productivity. I’d like to ask you that question.

Callaway: This is a very difficult question, and there are likely a number of reasons behind the current focus on pharmaceutical manufacturers and the illegal drug trade. I will propose one potential reason. In any crisis, there is a villain, victim, and a hero. In a poorly handled crisis, the company/sector is easily cast as the villain. In cases when crises are handled well, they are a hero. But, we rarely see a company or sector as a victim.

HR Daily Advisor: To those unaffected, the opioid crisis may seem like something that is happening far away or outside of their circle. How widespread is the issue?

Callaway: The issue is much more widespread than most people realize. The degree of separation from the opioid crisis is quite small for the average American. Opioids have impacted my family. Opioids have impacted my neighbors in suburban D.C. We spoke to manufacturing executives whose families had been impacted by opioids. Drugs remain a taboo subject that is not polite dinner table conversation. However, we are beginning to see more people acknowledging that their children, parents, or grandparents are struggling with addiction or have sadly lost the struggle. In the last 2 years, obituaries that acknowledge a death from drug use were newsworthy nationwide. This is important because it highlights that the opioid crisis is present in every community in this country despite the lack of open discourse.

HR Daily Advisor: Are hotspots of opioid use showing a proportionate impact on productivity and the workforce in those areas?

Callaway: Our study did not model the direct productivity impact at a company or county level. However, a 2011 Department of Justice study looked at the labor participation and premature mortality costs of illicit drug use on the U.S. economy and found that it leads to individuals becoming nonproductive. In our conversations with manufacturers operating in hotspots of drug use, there is increased anxiety about the skills gap in manufacturing and the need to find skilled workers who can be productive now and in the future.

HR Daily Advisor: Your study is specifically about how opioid abuse effects manufacturing. Can you elaborate?

Callaway: Our study focuses on the risk drug abuse poses to the long-term health of the manufacturing sector. Some optimists (including Manufacturing Council members) would like to see the United States return to its position as the global manufacturing powerhouse. As we look to grow, it’s also important to explore the factors that could potentially hinder our competitiveness as well.

HR Daily Advisor: Is manufacturing at more risk than other industries? If so, why?

Callaway: Our study didn’t compare manufacturing to other industry sectors to understand their relative risk profiles.

HR Daily Advisor: What can the manufacturing industry do to help curb the epidemic?

Callaway: Any company operating in an area with high rates of drug use can start by doing a few practical things to support their employees:

  1. Become familiar with the signs of opioid impairment.
  2. Educate your workforce about the risks of prescription opioid use.
  3. Reach out to your benefits provider to understand what support they can offer you to educate your workforce and/or support your HR function.
  4. Create a culture of compassion (studies have found that employees who pursue recovery with the support of their employer are more successful).