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Opioid Epidemic Takes Toll on Manufacturing Sector

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MCN Editor Dan Markham

Opioid use and misuse is almost certainly the health crisis of our time. Thousands of Americans are addicted to or misusing prescription pain medication and black-market alternatives, resulting in financial and health calamities in communities across the United States. 

The manufacturing industry is not immune to the damaging effects of the opioid crisis, reports Jenn Callaway, vice president of research at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation. “It’s a pretty pervasive issue that’s impacting companies’ ability to hire and their current workforce.” 

Callaway and other researchers set out to study the degree to which the opioid crisis was becoming a challenge for site selection, whether locating an operation in an area with a higher rate of opioid addictions would make filling newly created positions more difficult. “What we discovered was a larger problem, particularly how the velocity of the issue over the past five years was much faster than we anticipated. It grew into its own research project,” she says. Callaway’s paper, “Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: The Impact of Opioids on Manufacturing,” highlights how the crisis is being felt by U.S. companies. 

Among the study’s findings: 

  • In 2015, the U.S. spent 2.8 percent of its GDP on the crisis 
  • The crisis is reducing the labor force and productivity 
  • Areas with higher opioid pain medication prescription rates have lower labor force participation rates 
  • The epidemic is accelerating in communities with large manufacturing workforces 

By the end of 2016, the 70 counties employing the largest number of manufacturing workers were among the hardest hit by the crisis. Another 201 manufacturing-intensive counties were also seeing overdose deaths above the national median. Together, 40 percent of the counties employing the most manufacturing employees were experiencing the worst of the crisis. 

She found that 1 in 20 existing manufacturing employees were at risk of misusing an opioid-based pain medication. That doesn’t mean they’ll become addicts, simply that these employers are at risk to use a medication other than what it was prescribed for. However, many of the existing addiction stories have their roots in just such usage. 

MAPI found there were some techniques to combat the development of addiction casualties among its existing workforce. “The early indications are that wellness programs can play a role in better supporting employees within the workforce to minimize the risk of opioid medication dependency,” she says. 

Additionally, a comprehensive safety culture is important. Some dependencies start as a result of medication prescribed for a workplace injury, so the fewer incidents that take place, the less likely there will be a need for narcotics. 

A robust drug testing policy and process should also be in place, one that tests a strong panel of the drugs that are actively being used and misused in the communities where the plants operate. 

Finally, for those workers who do succumb to dependency, “There is anecdotal evidence from other studies that employees who pursue getting clean from any drug addiction or alcohol issue through an Employer Assistance Program are more likely to be successful than just being encouraged to do so by friends and family. There is a role employers can play to successfully support an employee,” she says. 

Of course, that only affects the existing employees. That doesn’t help with manufacturers who are discovering the difficulties of replacing vacant positions or expanding operations. That is where the challenge is particularly acute, driven by several factors. The unemployment rate has been moving downward since the Great Recession, currently sitting at historically low levels. On top of that, the baby boomer generation has begun to retire from the workforce, and the generation below is not as large a cohort. 

But those issues are amplified by the crisis. In 2000, the U.S. labor force participation rate reached a record 67.3 percent. Since then, it has been on a continuous slide. By September 2015, it hit a 40-year-low of 62.4 percent, reports Princeton University’s Alan B. Krueger. 

In his study, “Where Have All the Workers Gone? An Inquiry into the Decline of the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate,” Krueger says opioid use is a key factor in the decline. 

“Participation in the labor force has been declining for prime-age men for decades, and about half of prime-age men who are not in the labor force may have a serious health condition that is a barrier to work. Nearly half of prime-age, NLF men take pain medication on a daily basis, and in nearly two-thirds of these cases they take prescription pain medication. Labor force participation has fallen more in areas where relatively more opioid pain medication is prescribed, causing the problem of depressed labor force participation and the opioid crisis to become intertwined,” writes Krueger. 

There are some other findings in the various studies. There is a significant geographic bent to the crisis, with some areas getting hit considerably harder than others, often correlated with the rate that physicians are likely to prescribe medication. Also, there is a skewing of misuse toward low-education, unskilled, working-age men, who had been the lifeblood of manufacturing operations in the past. 

The absence of these individuals from the workforce is not something the individual company can fix on its own. Still, Callaway says there are some steps to take. “That’s where new and different workforce development tactics can come in handy,” she says, advocating for apprenticeship programs that are not as commonly used in the U.S. as they are in Europe. “That’s an opportunity to retrain people who may not be natural candidates for these roles in manufacturing.” 

As for the subject that prompted the study, site selection, Callaway says a community’s opioid abuse rate should be considered a crucial factor when determining where to expand operations. “Obviously, any manufacturing facility or distribution center is a very costly endeavor. Given the current state of the drug crisis in the U.S., that’s another filter for companies to consider: the overall health of the employees in the counties they’re looking to invest in.” 

Manufacturing executives interested in learning more about the topic and discussing it with others facing the challenge are invited to join MAPI at the ManufacturED Summit May 22-24 in Chicago. For more information, visit