To automakers looking beyond the horizon to the frontiers of automation, electrification and mobility, we offer this sobering reminder:
Don't lose sight of what's happening right now, in the communities around you, to the people who work for you.
The epidemic of opioid abuse across America's industrial heartland poses a pressing challenge to the health care and human resources mechanisms set up by automakers, suppliers and labor unions.
Unlike other drug abuse problems, this one can start as innocently as a prescription for pain medication, written by a physician and covered by employer-provided insurance. From there it moves down a dark path to more powerful addictions and deadlier drugs.
Employee support representatives at the automakers tell Automotive News they've never seen a crisis like it, that the existing mental health care resources and policies aren't enough to tackle the problem.
Unions and managers are responding as well as they can, but we'd like to see more evidence that officials at headquarters sense the full scope of the crisis and its implications for auto communities.
No manufacturer wants to publicly confront the prospect — let alone the reality — that its employees are coming to work high, fitting critical parts together while under the influence of narcotics they can buy on the factory floor. It's a touchy subject, and it risks reinforcing all the unfortunate negative stereotypes about spoiled union workers and lax quality control on the assembly line.
But a crisis of this scale, aimed right at the heart of the auto industry, calls for leadership and transparency, an end to the culture of secrecy and stigma that discourages drug abusers from getting help.
The opioid crisis hasn't overrun America's auto industry, yet. But the risk factors are all there: stressful, pain-inducing work, health benefits that cover prescription medications prone to abuse, incomes that can support costly but destructive habits, supply routes that surround auto communities and fill them with illicit drugs. Manufacturers shouldn't let their muted response become another one of those risk factors.