Opioids: An American Manufacturing Story

August 9 2018 | by Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, FPC

After high school, Jean joined the same manufacturing company as her mother. She was proud to continue on the path that her mother paved and hoped she too could retire from the company with an excellent retirement package. Through the years, Jean’s shoulder would sometimes be a little achy, and she began to see a pattern that it would hurt more when she worked on a particular job lifting heavy boxes. Over the counter medication seemed to help, but one day the pain was so sharp, she decided to go to a physician. Tests revealed that her rotator cup was damaged, and she would need surgery. 

After surgery, Jean was prescribed opioids to help with the pain. She returned to work but continued her opioid prescription to alleviate discomfort, or so she believed. One weekend Jean went to a wedding and drank a few alcoholic beverages that did not mix well with the opioids. She ended up in the hospital and subsequently a rehabilitation treatment center because she had become dependent on the prescriptions pills. Through months of counseling and significant amounts of time away from work she was able to maintain sobriety and return to work, but her life was forever changed. She had chipped away at her savings to initially support her dependency on prescription drugs and then diminished what she had left to pay for medical bills.

What Led Us to this Point?

The manufacturing industry is known to be labor intensive, leaving employees with chronic aches and pains. Repetition, heavy lifting, bending, and reaching are some of the most common activities that leave employees vulnerable to injury. In 2016, of the more than 12 million people working in the manufacturing industry, there was a 3.6% injury rate, with approximately 430,000 workers per year being injured on the job. These injuries are a result of many years of sustained hard work, a simple mistake, and/or a unique accident. It is not uncommon for employees to be treated with prescription drugs to alleviate pain and swelling so that they can return to work as quickly as possible. Now, with heightened awareness, we see that highly addictive prescription drugs have been used which has caused deeper systemic issues. In Pennsylvania (others states may be similar), opioids on average are prescribed to 82.2-95 in 100 people. That means potentially more than half of your workforce is currently taking prescription drugs. If your company has been fortunate enough to not have anyone fall victim to an opioid addiction, the statistics tell us it is only a matter of time.

The Ripple Effects

The introduction of collaborative robots has helped to alleviate some of the heavy lifting and repetition, but many companies are not in a position to incorporate this type of automation into their operations. This leaves employees very vulnerable to situations that are often gateways to opioid abuse. While we now have more insight into the damaging effects of opioids and similar prescription drugs; it’s reached the point of being a major crisis. Education and alternative treatment methods can help with employees injured in the future, but there is a large segment of the workforce that is dwindling due to this epidemic. Worker compensation premiums and health care costs are just two examples of the increased costs companies now face as a result of this pressing issue. When employees are not able to perform to the best of their ability due to impairment and/or injury, production, and efficiency decrease. There are many more examples of the negative implications of the over-use of prescription drugs in a company, and now more than ever companies need to make this topic a priority.

Next Steps

Prescription drug abuse continues to damage lives, erode our skilled workforce, and cost businesses in lost time, turnover, and health care expenses. As employers, we can no longer ignore the problem by sweeping it under the rug or turning a blind eye to it. As uncomfortable as it may be, we must start the conversation, and do so without judging the employee who faces an addiction. Now, more than ever, companies need compassion and understanding if we have any hope of turning this problem around.

Tackling this issue takes a united effort between employers, employees, insurance companies, and rehabilitation organizations. Leading the fight by acknowledging the problem, and educating and supporting our workforce goes a long way in winning the battle. Want to learn more about how you can make a more significant impact and help protect your company and employees?


Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP - Stambaugh Ness

Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., Managing Director of Workforce Advisory Services

Kristi focuses her extensive expertise on helping clients design a workforce that is not only prepared for the future, but one that leverages disruption to thrive and succeed. Weaving together a unique blend of anticipatory tools and insights with practical solutions, Kristi provides clients with an organizational architecture that empowers them for the NextGen.

Connect with Kristi on LinkedIn.



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