Last summer, my nephew, the college student, landed a job driving a school bus. The company loves him, and it happily took him back during his winter and spring breaks. Though he had a spotless driving record, he had never driven a bus before. His primary qualification? He passed the company’s drug test. Dozens of more qualified drivers could not.
As proud as I am of my nephew, I find that troubling. Drugs have been a problem in this country for decades, but it’s taken a deadly turn recently in the form of opioids. The numbers are staggering.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, drug overdoses are the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans under age 50. Overdoses killed 64,070 people in the U.S. in 2016. That’s more than guns or car accidents, and it’s a 21 percent increase from 2015. Overdoses are killing people at a faster rate than the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak. Almost 80 percent of those deaths are attributable to opioids, like heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers.
The senseless loss of life is problem enough, but the crisis is also exacting an economic toll. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers said the opioid epidemic cost the U.S. economy $504 billion in 2015, six times more than estimated two years earlier.
That’s why President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency last October, and we’re glad he did. We hope his declaration frees up resources to address the issue on multiple fronts.
But, it will take more than federal help to solve the problem. The opioid crisis is not just a “social issue.” It’s a manufacturing issue. Just as that bus company is having trouble finding clean drivers, manufacturers are having trouble finding clean workers. Given that some 2 million manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled by 2020, manufacturers can ill afford to lose any qualified worker, especially with the unemployment rate at 4.1 percent.
According to the latest survey data, more than 97 million people took prescription painkillers in 2015. Some 12 million of those people did so without being directed by a doctor, and more than 2 million of them say they have a problem with opioids. That’s a lot of people you don’t want anywhere near a press brake, lathe or conveyor.
Alas, opioids are likely already at your facility. The opioid crisis is striking manufacturing states like Illinois, Michigan and Ohio harder than others. And, data from insurer CNA Financial Corp. indicate that opioid prescriptions are higher in manufacturing than in most other industries. That’s not hard to fathom, considering the physical demands of assembly work.
It will take more than drug tests to solve the problem.