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Heroin abuse in the workplace

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances in the world. 

While it is significantly less popular among drug users in Australia compared to other illicit drugs, heroin use by workers can still pose a significant risk to the health and safety of your workplace due to its sedative and depressant effects. 

According to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, less than 1% of the Australian population aged 14 and over had used heroin in the previous 12 months.

In this article, we provide you with an overview of heroin, its effects, the impact of heroin in the workplace, and how to manage heroin abuse at work.

What is heroin?

An analgesic opioid, heroin is a highly addictive substance that is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring ingredient of the opium poppy plants. 

Belonging under the depressant drugs category, heroin affects the central nervous system of the body by slowing down the travel of messages between the brain and the body. 

Heroin has a lot of street names including smack, dope, hammer, homebake, elephant, and poison.

Taking a closer look at heroin

Heroin has several distinct forms, such as fine white powder, small pieces of brown rock, and off-white granules. 

It features a bitter taste, but has no smell, and usually comes in a foil or small balloon packaging. 

While the drug is commonly injected directly into the vein and absorbed into the bloodstream, it can also be smoked and snorted. Some people add it to marijuana or tobacco cigarettes for a stronger effect.

Effects of heroin on the body

Heroin has a rapid onset of action, marked by an intense rush, warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and a feeling of lethargic heaviness in the limbs accompanied by drowsiness while awake. It causes strong clouding of mental functions, degrading attention and access to memories (short and long term). Along with the pleasurable effects, uncomfortable gastrointestinal effects are relatively common, including constipation, nausea and vomiting. 

Serious cardiac and respiratory effects also occur – due to its anaesthetic effect heroin cause degrees of respiratory depression (depending on the dose) with slowed shallow breathing, which can lead to coma and permanent brain damage with heroin overdoses.

Heroin can cause strong physical dependence (where the user experiences strong withdrawal symptoms if there is an abrupt decline in use) and tolerance (the longer a user takes heroin the higher the dose they have to take to get the same experience as they originally got with lower doses).

Although heroin is relatively non-toxic to the body, frequent or long-term use and consumption in large dosages can bring about long-term side effects, including menstrual irregularity and infertility in women, loss of sex drive in men, cognitive impairment and memory problems (due to degradation of the brain’s white matter), increased feelings of sadness, and frequent nausea and vomiting. 

Chronic heroin abuse can also expose blood vessels and heart valves to bacterial infections, collapse or scar veins, trigger abscesses and other soft-tissue infections, and liver or kidney disease. Those who inject the drug and share needles with other users are also at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

The impact of heroin at work

More than 23% of heroin users become dependent on the drug, so heroin use at work is an intractable problem.

Heroin’s sedative and depressant effects on users pose a significant health and safety risk in the workplace. The combination of central nervous system depression and sedation with impaired attention makes heroin at work a major problem, mitigated only by the relatively low rate of heroin use in the population. 

Many workplace accidents have been blamed on workers impaired by heroin, resulting in property damage, injury, and death. 

Other workplace impacts from heroin abuse include theft, tardiness, absenteeism, and loss of productivity. 

There could also be financial and legal ramifications for the business. 

Signs of heroin abuse

Signs and symptoms of heroin abuse may include: 

  • Drooping eyelids
  • Constricted, and at high dose, pinpoint pupils
  • Slow breathing
  • Flushed skin
  • Runny nose
  • Sudden behaviour changes and frequent mood swings
  • Changes in peer groups and social preferences
  • Existence of drug paraphernalia in the person’s belongings
  • Money troubles
  • Decreased or loss of concentration and brain functions
  • Neglect of grooming
  • Slurred speech
  • Scratching
  • Complaints of constipation.

What to do about heroin at work

There are several solutions for heroin at workplace concerns, and all of them are hinged on the development and implementation of a drug and alcohol policy and procedure for the workplace. 

Important aspects of the policy are the inclusion of drug awareness training and a drug testing program, which can help determine worker impairment and prevent untoward workplace incidents.

Heroin testing

The most common heroin drug testing methods being used today are:

  • Urine drug test – A simple and cost-effective method of heroin testing, urine testing can detect heroin up to three days after the last instance of use.
  • Oral fluid (saliva) drug test – This least-invasive method is also the least effective, as it can only detect heroin in the body for at least 12 hours after use – which is up to half the duration of impairment from an episode of heroin use.
  • Hair follicle drug test – With its ability to detect heroin in a user’s system for up to three months after use, hair testing is considered one of the more accurate methods of testing for heroin abuse.

Learn more

Safework Health can help you keep your workplace safe from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today for a confidential discussion.


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