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What Employers Can Ask About Prescription Drugs

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Prescription drug use can be beneficial for workers when they are used properly, but employers still have concerns. An employee on certain types of medications, such as pain meds or anything that causes drowsiness, might not be able to safely perform all their job duties. In order to make that determination, you first need to know that the employee is on a medication that could cause impairment.

"Employers walk a fine line when dealing with employees taking prescription medications," Linda Van Woert, EMC Senior Injury Management Consultant, says. "On one hand, there are Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws, employee rights and confidentiality requirements. And on the other hand, employers must keep all employees safe and protect equipment, the general public and job sites."

Linda also stresses that it's important to understand that even though the restrictions come from the ADA, the laws for managing prescription medications apply to all employees, not just those who have claimed a disability.

So, what are you to do?

When You Can Ask

In some situations, you can ask the employee if they are taking prescription medications or to confirm which medications they are taking. In other cases, you may be able to require that an individual undergo a medical exam to determine if they are impaired. If a medical exam is required, you'll only receive the outcome of the exam, not complete medical records for the employee. These special circumstances include the following:

  • If the job the employee is performing is safety sensitive, such as operating a forklift, commercial vehicle or crane.
  • If the prescription medication use may put your company at risk for liability. A company's safety could be at risk even if the person taking the medications works a desk job. For example, someone who works with sensitive contracts or money might not be thinking clearly when under the influence of certain types of medications.
  • If legislation has given you the right to ask. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act allows employers to ask drivers of commercial vehicles whether they are taking medications because impaired driving is a danger to others. The same is true of the pilots, school bus drivers and others who drive commercially for a company.
  • If the employee has been observed exhibiting behaviors that appear to be dangerous, such as operating company equipment erratically.

How to Ask

To make the asking process as easy and consistent as possible, create an established protocol within your safety program:

  • Document the procedures supervisors must follow
  • Include details about which jobs and tasks are sensitive to various types of prescription medications
  • Develop a method of addressing the questions that need to be asked
  • Establish a process, such as requiring a medical exam, to ensure the employee can perform the job without impingement

Additionally, before an employee can return to work after sick leave, it's normal for a supervisor to ask for a doctor's note as part of company policy. It can be common for the supervisor to ask if everything is back to normal, if there are any restrictions and if the employee has any reservations about returning to their job duties. The topic of medication use may arise naturally as the employee answers these questions.

When safety is an issue, be aware it's legal only to discuss the portion of the job that is dangerous if the employee is taking medications. If the returning employee is a crane operator, you can ask about anything relating to operating that crane. If the employee is at a desk working on data entry, you can't ask for details, as the job tasks aren't safety related.

Managing a Returning Employee on Medications

You should always be prepared when employees are returning to work after an injury or illness. You may need to make accommodations for a few days or weeks, depending on the situation. Offer to make accommodations if necessary, using your return to work program as a guide.

If you know what medications the employee is taking but don't know the side effects or whether the medication is potentially dangerous, research the medication. Read the form provided by the pharmacy when the pills were dispensed or talk to a pharmacist to find out more details about the medication.

For more detailed information about the ADA, questions and medical examinations, review this guidance from EEOC.

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