Battling the Opioid Crisis in the Construction Industry

The opioid crisis in the U.S. has become a public health emergency and it affects people from all walks of life and has invaded all areas of the country. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration reported that 10,933,000 people 18 or older had misused opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs, within the past year. More than half, 5,658,000, worked full-time jobs and another 1,581,000 were employed part-time.

The construction industry isn’t immune from this epidemic. If anything, based on the physical demands of their work, construction workers are probably at a greater risk of being prescribed opioids and getting addicted to them.

This is especially true if they are taking prescription opioids for extended amounts of time. According to the CDC, 50% of people who take an opioid for 30 days will still be on the drug three years and 60% of people taking an opioid for 90 days are still taking it five years later.

In their 2015 Rick Outlook: Construction – Prescription Opioid Abuse: Risk Factors and Solutions, commercial insurance underwriter CNA noted, “15.1 percent of construction across various specializations have engaged in illicit drug use, including both illegal and legal prescription drugs. While there is limited data illustrating the incidence of opioid abuse among injured construction workers, analysis of CNA claim data indicates the cost of opioid use is greater in construction than in other industries.”

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are often legally prescribed as a pain reliever like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, morphine and methadone. They also include illegal drugs like heroin and the synthetic drug fentanyl which can be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Legally, fentanyl is used severe pain for surgery patients and cancer patients, but it is also produced illegally and used as a street drug or to lace heroin.

Opioids attach to receptors in the brain that release endorphins and stimulate them to relieve pain. Repeated use builds a tolerance requiring more of the drug in order to achieve the same effect. Side effects of opioid use include sedation, vomiting, dizziness, nausea, constipation, physical dependence, tolerance and respiratory depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of deaths caused overdoses involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999. Every day, 91 people die from an opioid overdose.

This isn’t a problem that can be ignored or denied, but construction companies have to be willing to speak out and address this issue in order to effect real change. A recent Bisnow report in Forbes on opioid abuse in construction noted the reluctance of companies to talk about the problem.

They reached out to 17 construction companies and workers at 27 construction sites nationwide to discuss the issued in their report. Only two executives were willing to go on the record and speak out about how the opioid crisis is hurting the construction industry.

Many construction companies conduct drug tests as part of pre-employment screenings, random testing and as part of post-accident investigations. Those that do often have a zero tolerance for testing positive, resulting in immediate termination.

On the surface, it’s a policy that makes a lot of sense considering hazardous nature of construction sites. You’ve got heavy equipment operators, people working at height on scaffolding, ladders and roofs and workers with power tools on a site where conditions are changing daily. You can’t afford to have a worker under the influence making a mistake that could result in an injury to themselves or others.

But is it really fair to deny employment or terminate a worker without doing a little digging to get to the root of the problem? Perhaps an employee got hooked on prescription opioids after suffering an injury on the job or from the pain suffered from the physical demands of their work.

Instead of terminating the employee outright, you can work with them and their doctor to help them manage their pain and wean them off their opioid dependence. Employers need to be training their workers and supervisors on the dangers of opioid use and abuse. Make sure workers are aware of Employee Assistance Programs and the kind of help they can provide.

The opioid crisis isn’t going away anytime soon, so the construction industry needs to start acknowledging and address the issue rather than ignoring or denying it.

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