Six Ways Employers Can Help Combat the Opioid Epidemic

Many of us know someone who has been touched by the opioid epidemic in our community, from friends and family members to neighbors and co-workers.

It is a problem so widespread that Erie County has declared opioid addiction a public health crisis and created the Opioid Epidemic Task Force to find solutions. As the county noted in its declaration, no single strategy alone can address this complex and multi-faceted issue. The opioid epidemic requires involvement and coordination of initiatives from many stakeholders including government agencies, medical professionals, and law enforcement. The business community must also play a role.

As the area’s regional chamber of commerce, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership is working with government leaders, our members, and our partners to help local businesses better understand the opioid epidemic and what they can do to help. This includes a series of events focused on opioid addiction and its effect on the workforce.

“We’ve created a number of presentations to explore what the business community can do to be an ally in the fight against opioid addiction in Western New York,” said Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. “Because if a person is addicted, it is not just at home—it’s 24/7, including the workplace.”

Increasing awareness about opioid addiction.

Judging from the packed room during the Partnership’s Jan. 8 event and panel discussion on  the opioid epidemic in our community, employers in the Buffalo Niagara region are getting involved. Our event featured a panel of speakers including:

  • Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz;
  • Erie County Commissioner of Health Gale R. Burstein, MD, MPH, FAAP; and
  • Howard K. Hitzel, Psy.D, the President and CEO of BestSelf Behavioral Health 

“The opioid epidemic is the public health crisis of our time, similar to the polio epidemic of the early 1900s or the AIDS crisis of the 1990s,” Poloncarz said in his opening remarks. “We need to treat it that way—as a health crisis in our community requiring a collaborative effort to address the many issues related to it.”

Since the county’s Opioid Epidemic Task Force was started in 2016, Poloncarz said that Erie County has seen evidence that the strategy is working to help alleviate the opioid crisis. But there is still a long way to go.

In 2016, the county recorded 301 opioid-related deaths. That number fell to 251 in 2017. And while the numbers are still being tabulated for last year, it is estimated the number of deaths in 2018 will be below 200. Yet during the weekend prior to the Partnership’s Jan. 8 event, local media reported that there were nine opioid related overdoses, including three deaths in Western New York.

“We all have a role to play in solving this crisis—as employers, families, and friends—and we can make a difference together,” Poloncarz said. “Our county is leading the way regionally and on a national level in addressing the opioid epidemic and we will continue our efforts to save everyone possible.”

Treating the disease.

Dr. Burstein noted that substance use disorders (SUDs) are chronic diseases, like cancer or diabetes, that can be treated. She also pointed out that, for a large majority of people addicted to opioids, the addiction began with prescription pain medication following an injury or surgery.

She explained that the county’s response to the opioid epidemic is a multi-disciplinary approach including:

  • Preventing people from starting on opioids;
  • Reducing opioid addiction; and
  • Reversing opioid overdose with life-saving medications such as Naloxone

In the workplace, Dr. Burstein said employers need to remove the stigma of addiction and treat it just as if an employee had heart disease or other chronic illness. “The most important thing is seeing that the person gets the appropriate care,” she said.

Six steps employers can take.

From more employee sick time to lost productivity to increased health care costs, the business community feels the effects of the opioid epidemic.

During his remarks, Hitzel outlined six steps employers can take:

  1. Create a work environment in which employees can come forward when they have a problem with addiction.
  2. Implement workplace policies that are understanding and supportive, not punitive.
  3. Treat an employee’s addiction as you would any other chronic health condition – help them find the appropriate care they need.
  4. Educate employees about opioid addiction including seminars, literature, and other educational resources. See the resource listing at the end of this post.
  5. Encourage employees to seek help and utilize Employee Assistance Programs if available.
  6. Provide Narcan training for safety teams and the general employee population and include it in AED Defibrillator boxes if your facility has them.

Looking ahead.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership would like to thank County Executive Poloncarz, Commissioner of Health Dr. Burstein, and Howard Hitzel for their participation and leadership in this important event. We’ll hold the second event in this series in March. To make sure you receive the latest event details, sign up for our newsletter.

Presenting Sponsor

Resources in the fight against opioid addiction

24/7 Addiction Hotline: (716) 831-7007
Get immediate help, education, information, referrals, and assistance finding treatment.

Presentation: About the Opioid Epidemic in Our Community 

Erie County Resources
Learn more about the Opioid Task Force
Get information about opioids
Attend training and related events

National Task Force Resources
City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic