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A dose of reality for Wisconsin employers: Contractors not immune to opioid epidemic

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel

By now, most of the state is well aware of the current drug epidemic brought on by the widespread abuse of opioids.

Unfortunately, the construction industry is not immune from its devastating effects.

When I was running for Attorney General in 2014, much of the state hadn’t been inundated with stories about how addiction to opioids was changing the lives of our family, friends, neighbors and fellow workers. Over the last four years, we’ve found success fighting this epidemic with our Dose of Reality campaign, which is aimed at preventing the abuse of prescription painkillers. We’ve produced ads and outreach materials meant for various audiences, including medical professionals, seniors and caregivers, veterans, tribal communities, teachers and coaches, and parents and students.

Yet, even though we have made great progress in recent years, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. And there needs to be more attention paid to the effect opioid abuse is having in the workplace and on the struggles employers face.

I have a close friend who owns three restaurants. Two years ago, one of his hostesses died of a drug overdose. He also said he and his managers had interviewed nearly 300 people throughout the year for positions at his restaurants, not because there were that many spots to fill, but because he had to continuously let people go because they were failing to show up – a common sign of prescription-drug abuse.

Drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents in Wisconsin, and those deaths aren’t all caused by “hard street drugs.” In fact, overdoes from prescription narcotic painkillers kill more people than heroin and cocaine combined. With more than 163,000 Wisconsinites addicted to prescription opioids, we all have a role to play in preventing that number from increasing.

I’m writing to you, as a Wisconsin employer, to deliver this dose of reality: Prescription-opioid abuse is affecting your business. A study out of Indiana found that four out of five employers have had to deal with addictions to opioid prescription painkillers, as well as opioid abuse, in their workplaces. Wisconsin and Indiana have an awful lot in common. If we conducted the same survey here, we should expect similar results, especially considering 80 percent of Worker’s Compensation claims in Wisconsin involve narcotic pain medications like Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin and Hydrocodone.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is now working with medical professionals and teachers, but the opioid epidemic stretches far beyond the doctor’s office and classroom. We need Wisconsin employers, including construction contractors, to help. Together, we can make our workplaces safer and save lives.

But also, opioid abuse is affecting your bottom line. Prescription opioid abuse costs U.S. employers $26 billion a year. Workplace insurers spend $1.4 billion a year on narcotic painkillers. Wisconsin employers cannot afford to ignore this epidemic.

Even if all of your employees who are prescribed painkillers are using them appropriately and no one at your business is struggling with addiction, opiate abuse could still be reaching into your business through your employees’ relatives. Seventy percent of those who are addicted to prescription opioids didn’t get their first pills from a street dealer. They got them from a relative or friend. That’s why I’m asking you to be a resource to your employees. Employer can give people a safe place to turn to for help or guidance, either for themselves or relatives, and thus can provide opportunities for early intervention.

What can you do as an employer?

  • Inform your employees about the dangers of prescription-painkiller use by distributing materials like the posters, flyers and brochures found at, which are provided at no cost to employers.
  • Train supervisors to recognize the possible signs of drug impairment and know how to help.
  • Consider adopting an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you don’t have one already, that can offer employees up to three confidential counseling sessions at no cost on a wide range of subjects related to mental health.
  • After first consulting your human-resources professionals or legal counsel, try to take stock of your company’s drug policies and consider including prescription medications in those policies and in your drug-testing procedures. People who recover from drug abuse can and will be successful employees, but they need early intervention and the support of their employers and fellow workers.
  • Also, consider encouraging your employees to take part in the safe and convenient drug-disposal program run by the DOJ. They can do this either by taking advantage of Drug Take Back Day, which will be held on October 27 this year, or by going to one of the nearly 400 permanent drug-disposal boxes that can be found throughout the state. At every Drug Take Back site, you can safely dispose of prescription and over-the-counter medications. To learn more or to find a Drug Take Back site near you, go to

Many of the small-business owners I know treat their colleagues and employees like family, and would never want to see them fall victim to opioid abuse. There are simple steps you, and every citizen in this state, can take to end this epidemic. Help us spread the important message about the safe use of prescription drugs. Please go to to learn how we can make our state safer and healthier.

Brad Schimel is the Wisconsin Attorney General.

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