By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/4/2010 2:33:23 PM ET 2010-10-04T18:33:23

Alex Fotopoulous, an IT project manager in Atlanta, admits he gets dopey and drowsy on the job when he’s taking prescription painkillers to deal with the lingering effects of the neck surgery he had six months ago.

But Fotopoulos, who did not want his real name used for fear of losing his job, hasn’t told his boss or Human Resources that he’s taking the medication.

“I am slower on the job, slower to make decisions, or just comprehend what I’m reading,” he admitted. But “the distraction from the pain itself is typically worse for my productivity than the meds,” he added.

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The use of painkillers, specifically opiates, by employees has exploded over the past few years, and a growing number of employers are starting to test workers for legal, prescription drugs. It’s generally illegal to fire or demote a worker who is taking a prescribed medication, according to labor experts, but using that medication could still impact your career, not to mention your safety and the safety of others on the job.

“If you come to work bombed or blitzed,” explained Steven Mitchell Sack, an labor lawyer and author of “The Employee Rights Handbook: Effective Legal Strategies To Protect Your Job From Interview To Pink Slip,” you may have some rights against adverse actions by an employer. But just because you have back pain and need opiates, he added, you don’t automatically have the “right to be drowsy, or not do your work, or create an unsafe environment.”

Unfortunately, some workers may be doing just that.

Diagnostic testing giant Quest Diagnostics, which does many employee drug screenings for companies, last month reported a dramatic rise in employee use of prescription opiates found in drugs such as morphine, or the popular OxyContin.

The Quest data was culled from 5.5 million worker urine tests and found:

  • An 18 percent jump in opiate positives in the general U.S. work force in 2009 compared to the previous year.
  • A more than 40 percent climb in opiate positives from 2005 to 2009.

Even more disturbing: The results from Quest’s post-accident testing show that in many cases employers are giving workers a drug test after they’ve been involved in a workplace accident. If they can prove the drugs caused the accident or injury they could get out of paying a workers’ compensation claim.

Quest found that last year that post-accident drug tests uncovered opiates up to four times more often than pre-employment tests (3.7 percent in post-accident compared with 0.78 percent in pre-employment tests), suggesting drugs are playing a role in workplace accidents.

“Employees have a right to have appropriate medical treatment under a doctor’s care,” said Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Employer Solutions at Quest. But “our data should be an indicator of concern for both employers and employees regarding the potential impact of these drugs on workers and safety.”

Overuse of such drugs, experts contend, can clearly impair an employee’s ability to do his or her job, even if a worker is using the prescribed medications in the correct dosage. They can still lead to impairment on the job, and can potentially be harmful.

“We believe that workers taking opiates — regardless of the amount — need to take into consideration the consequences of long-term use, including gradual progression of intake, emotional numbness, delayed reaction/responses and decreased performance,” said Clare Kavin, administrative director of The Waismann Method, an opiate dependency treatment center.

Kavin said there aren’t enough patient-doctor discussions when it comes to the long-term impact of taking painkillers. And patients go along with it, she added, because they “have no tolerance today for discomfort and seek out prescription narcotics as a form of immediate relief.”

Clearly, there is often a medical need for painkillers and workers should know their rights.

Even with protections for employees taking legal drugs as prescribed, that’s not to say some employers will ignore, or are ignorant of the law, or suddenly start to view you less favorably. And this becomes even more of an issue in a tough economy when there are few openings and lots of people looking for work.

The other thing to keep in mind is the amount of opiates you take even if they are legal.

One case in North Carolina last year involved a carpenter who was seriously injured after a fall. Opiates were found after his drug test and the employer tried to deny him workers’ compensation, claiming he was impaired at the time. In this case, the court found in the employee’s favor because there was no evidence of how much of the drug was in his system. If it did indeed show high levels of the narcotic he would likely have been denied benefits.

And, added Scott Behren, an employment attorney from Weston, Fla., even though your employer is “not normally allowed to inquire about drug use, unless an employee tests positive to a drug test. Then an employee can be required to disclose what drugs they are on."

Just how long such drugs stay in your system “varies based on a number of different factors, including the type of opiate and a person’s metabolism,” said Waismann’s Kavin. “Generally, they stay within the body for approximately five to 14 days, sometimes longer.”

When drugs are found, employers can legally restrict you from doing certain safety sensitive jobs, Behren maintained. If an employee is on drugs and it hampers his ability to do his work substantially, especially driving, an employer can take action, even suspending a worker from a light duty position that does not endanger the public, he said.

You may be entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act to have your company make accommodations for your drug use, or even for drug or alcohol addiction. (See my recent msnbc.com column on this issue.)

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So, how do you know if you have a problem?

Waismann's Kavin offered “three key indicators that should immediately alert someone that opiates are getting in the way of their professional career or job”:

  1. When an employee realizes he or she is putting in extra effort to complete simple day-to-day tasks.
  2. When performance is compromised.
  3. When an employee appears to care less about the quality of his work.

Labor attorney Sack advises employees to inform their Human Resources Department that they’re taking painkillers.

“More and more employers are testing for these drugs on the job,” he explained, so being up front will take the surprise factor out of it.

And, he stressed, “times are tough and you better be careful and try to avoid the use of prescription drugs while working as much as possible.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Vote: Vote: Should employees take painkillers at work?

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