Use of prescription opiates by workers and job applicants continues to grow

The use of prescription opiates by American workers and job applicants rose 18% from 2008 to 2009 and has grown 40% since 2005, researchers said Wednesday. Tests performed after on-the-job accidents showed that drug use was four times as common as among job applicants, suggesting that the drugs may be playing a role in the accidents. The good news from the new report by Quest Diagnostics Inc. of Madison, N.J., is that cocaine use continued to decline, and was down 29.3% from 2008 to 2009 in the general workforce and 25% among safety-sensitive workers, such as pilots and drivers.

Quest is one of the largest diagnostic companies in the country. The new results, reported online, are based on more than 5.5 million urine tests for drugs. They are consistent with findings released by the federal government in March showing a 111% increase in prescription-drug-related visits to emergency rooms between 2004 and 2008 and a 29% jump from 2007 to 2008.

“Because more U.S. workers are performing their duties while taking prescription opiates, employers, particularly those with safety-sensitive workers, should note this trend and take appropriate steps to ensure worker and public safety,” Dr. Barry Sample, Quest’s director of science and technology, said in a statement.

The data showed that prescription opiates were detected in urine from 3.7% of workers who had been in a work-related accident, compared with 0.78% of job applicants. Possible side effects that can increase the chances of an accident include drowsiness, nausea and depressed respiration.

Semi-synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone, oxycodones and hydromorphone were by far the most common, while the naturally-occurring opiates codeine and morphine were much less common.

Methamphetamine use showed little change over the period, but amphetamine use climbed by more than 15% in 2009.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II / Los Angeles Times