By BARRY MEIER
Published: June 2, 2012
Workplace insurers are accustomed to making billions of dollars in payments each year, with the biggest sums going to employees hurt in major accidents, like those mangled by machines or crushed in building collapses.
Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Some of Mr. Kulakowski’s medications. He has undergone a long list of failed treatments.
Now they are dealing with another big and fast-growing cost — payouts to workers with routine injuries who have been treated with strong painkillers, including many who do not return to work for months, if ever.
Workplace insurers spend an estimated $1.4 billion annually on narcotic painkillers, or opioids. But they are also finding that the medications, if used too early in treatment, too frequently or for too long, can drive up associated disability payouts and medical expenses by delaying an employee’s return to work.
Workers who received high doses of opioid painkillers to treat injuries like back strain stayed out of work three times longer than those more…