When Drug Use Becomes So Common that Workers Overdose on the Job

Overdose in the office

When the number of drug users in the United States climbs to absolutely unprecedented levels, it is a logical assumption of course that drug use will begin to appear in the workforce. As drug abuse has become so prominent amongst American adults, and as a drug habit or an alcohol habit is quite expensive and requires regular funding to continue, we can safely extrapolate that many of those who use drugs also have jobs.

Let’s look at some numbers.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are about twenty-four million, six-hundred thousand Americans who are drug users. That’s nine percent of the U.S. population of Americans that are over the age of twelve. [1]

On the workforce side of things, the Department of Numbers estimates that our nation’s current number of working-age Americans who are unemployed numbers about nine million, three-hundred thousand. That’s just under four percent of working-age adults. [2]

So clearly, a lot of the drug users and alcohol misusers in the U.S. are also gainfully employed. Even if every single unemployed individual in America was a drug user, that does not account for that other five percent of the population. Remember, nine percent of Americans over the age of twelve use drugs. Four percent of Americans are unemployed. The numbers don’t add up to take the stance that, “Drug addicts don’t have jobs,” which is a common stance bandied about in the media or in politics.

What Drug Use in the Workforce Looks Like

Pill on enter key

Now that we’ve cleared the air on the fact that drug use absolutely happens in the workforce, let’s look at what that would entail, and the kind of effect that would have on everyone involved. Certainly, overdoses are the major factor, the most concerning aspect here, but for the most part, fatal overdoses have only begun to occur more recently. Let’s look at how drug use in the workforce has hampered the American job market and economy for decades.

According to the National Safety Council, seventy percent of businesses reported that their very own businesses had been in some way affected by prescription drug abuse, (prescription drug abuse likely being the most significant drug problem in the U.S. today). Businesses are now experiencing absenteeism, accidents, injuries, overdoses, failed drug tests, thefts on business property, etc 

According to the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, businesses are now having to spend billions of dollars on treating opioid abuse and opioid overdoses amongst their employees. According to the research, employers spent about two billion, six-hundred million dollars on employees who were using opioids in 2016. Twelve years ago, that cost was only three-hundred million dollars, more than five times less.[5]

And drug use at the workplace is not just expensive fiscally either. There is also a massive loss of workforce productivity, which is also a fiscal loss, among other things. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workers who are addicted to pain medication miss twenty-nine days of work a year, compared to about ten days for non-addicted employees. That’s almost a three-hundred percent disparity.

Workers using drugs and alcohol are not only harmful and taxing to themselves, but they are also harmful and taxing to everyone at the business too. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc., workers with an alcohol addiction were almost three times more likely than non-alcoholic workers to have injury-related absences from work. And when workers have to go to the hospital due to an injury sustained at work, sixteen percent of them test positive for alcohol.

When employees use drugs and alcohol on the job, this creates a danger and a risk for the business as an organization. But the habit also harms themselves and everyone else nearby too.

Overdoses on the Job Site—A New Problem

In 2016, two-hundred and seventeen Americans died from a drug overdose while at work. That number is up thirty-two percent from 2015. That’s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since about 2010, fatal workforce drug overdoses have increased by about twenty-five percent every year. This means that incidences of heavy drug use on the job have been growing exponentially amongst the American people. By now, such incidences are about two-hundred percent more frequent than they were in 2010. [5]

What’s even more concerning about the growing prevalence of fatal workforce overdoses is not the rapid growth factor or the fact that workers are literally dying from overdoses while on the clock, but that the workplaces seem completely incapable of doing anything about it. According to surveys done by the National Safety Council, the average American workplace is extremely under-equipped to contend with an overdosing employee [8].

The NSC surveyed just over five-hundred managers from businesses with fifty or more employees. According to the survey results, less than twenty percent of such businesses are sufficiently prepared to combat the opioid crisis or any kind of drug crisis for that matter. Only thirteen percent of businesses responded positively with any kind of confidence or affirmation that they were prepared should one of their employees fall prey to a substance abuse habit. [7],[8]

Just a little more than half of the businesses said they screened their employees for drugs. And that was a good sign, though it should be closer to one-hundred percent of businesses screening their employees. But on the subject of screening, what was very concerning was that forty percent of those businesses who do screen their employees failed to screen for opioids, which is the big problem right now. This means that only about thirty percent of all businesses are screening their employees for opioid use.

Working to Create Positive Change in the Workforce

Employee meeting.

Thankfully, there are a few approaches that businesses can take to reduce drug and alcohol use trends at work. Some of these strategies include:

  • Increasing the frequency and quality of drug testing. This one is clearly lacking. For the most part, most businesses still use the same drug testing technology that was in use almost forty years ago during the Reagan Administration, back in the 1980s when drug testing of employees first became normal. However, more effective testing technology does exist, and businesses should make use of it frequently.
  • Implementing educational courses and seminars for new hires. Education is still the best prevention policy, so businesses that went the extra mile to teach their employees about the harms and risks of drug use would be ahead of the curve in making real change for the better in their own companies.
  • Supporting addiction treatment for employees Developing Employee Assistance Programs; EAPs is very vital and will prove to be very cost effective in the long run. When a business does find out that one of their employees is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the focus must be one of getting that employee into a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. This is the only way it can go. Addicted employees often feel they will lose their job or even go to jail if their employer finds out about their addiction, but there are federal laws [CFR 42] in place to better enable to the employee to seek treatment and get help and then back to work. The policy has to be one of addiction treatment, not dismissal and possible incarceration.

Addiction and overdoses in the workforce are growing. We need to do our part to address this problem.


Clinical Review by Claire Pinelli, LADC, CCS, ICAADC, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.