7 startling facts about prescription painkillers

You’ve probably heard about the increase in painkiller abuse in the U.S. But some statistics gathered on this epidemic by the National Safety Council (NSC) are real eye-openers:

  • Forty-five people die every day from opioid prescription painkillers – more deaths than heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.
  • In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were provided to medicate every American around the clock for an entire month.
  • More than 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers got the pills from friends or relatives. Only about 5 percent got the painkillers from a drug dealer or from the Internet.
  • The U.S. contains only 4.6 percent of the world’s population but consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioids and 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone.
  • While middle-aged men and women have the highest prescription painkiller fatal overdose rates, the rates are increasing most rapidly among women. Overdose death rates in women have increased more than 400 percent since 1999, compared to 265 percent among men. Teen use also is rising. One in eight high school seniors admit to using prescription painkillers recreationally.
  • Prescription painkillers are gateway drugs to heroin. In 10 years of treating patients for substance abuse and addiction, NSC Medical Advisor Dr. Don Teater reports having just one patient whose prescription painkiller addiction began with a heroin addiction. All other patients have first been addicted to painkillers and switched to heroin because it is cheaper.
  • Heroin overdose deaths receive significant media attention. But while these deaths increased 45 percent from 2006-2010, prescription painkiller deaths have risen by more than 300 percent since 1999.

Effects in the workplace

What does this have to do with workplace safety? Workers who abuse prescription painkillers:

  • 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
  • have lower productivity.


Some workplace education may be in order.

Employees should know that painkiller addiction is every bit as serious as addiction to illegal drugs and alcohol.

But managers and supervisors must be aware that they can’t ask employees what prescription medications they’re taking, not even before making a conditional job offer.

After a job offer is made, an employer can ask an applicant to take a drug test that screens for drug use. An employer can legally withdraw an offer of employment on the basis of illegal drug use – and that includes illegal use of painkillers (for instance, without having a prescription).