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Awareness: The First Step in Addressing Opioid Addiction in the Construction Industry


Construction workers are among the most likely to be affected by opioid misuse or addiction. Exposed to greater risk for injury, they are more often prescribed an opioid to continue work and so to be more prone to dependence and addiction. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 14.3 percent of those working in construction from 2008 to 2012 had a substance abuse disorder. This was the second largest percentage within an industry, just behind accommodations and food services industry (16.9 percent). Given the rapid increase in deaths from overdoses, it is possible that opioid addiction has a bigger impact on construction workers now than when this survey was completed.  

Alcohol use and abuse also continue to take a toll on worker productivity—the SAMHSA report found that 16.5 percent of those in construction had drunk heavily in the past month. However, it’s the risk of sudden death by overdose that makes the opioid crisis so acute. 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2017 that construction workers in Ohio were seven times more likely to die of an overdose than the average worker in 2016. In fact, the Midwest reports the highest number of overdose deaths in the US. 

The first step in reversing the addiction and overdose trend is raising awareness of the problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in March that “Emergency department (ED) visits for opioid overdoses rose 30 percent in all parts of the US from July 2016 through September 2017.” The increase was as high as 70 percent in the Midwest. According to the CDC, opioids include prescription pain medications, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

A 2017 survey by the National Safety Council, NORC at the University of Chicago and Shatterproof, found that those struggling with opioid addiction miss 50 percent more work and that “construction, entertainment, recreation and food service businesses have twice the national average number of employees with substance use disorders.” It also states that those with alcohol and other substance abuse problems are more susceptible to opioid addiction. In addition, “Healthcare costs for employees who misuse or abuse prescription drugs are three times the costs for an average employee.” 

Employers can learn more about the costs of opioid and other addictions here and find out the estimated costs with this calculator

How are employers addressing the crisis? It is difficult to stop because opioids have been legally and abundantly prescribed since 1999. They are easily accessible to both those with prescriptions and those without. A survey from HR Today found that seven out of 10 employers have been affected by an employee’s prescription drug use. It says that “81 percent of employers lack a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy,” and that “41 percent of those that drug test employees are not testing for synthetic opioids.” 

The CDC has published guidelines to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions, but that still leaves employers with questions about how to proceed in their workplaces. 

The National Business Group on Health offers these strategies in An Employers’ Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse:

  • Implementing drug-free workplace and other written substance abuse policies;

  • Offering health benefits that provide comprehensive coverage for substance use disorders, including aftercare and counseling;

  • Educating employees about the health and productivity hazards of substance abuse through company wellness programs, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and Work/Life programs;

  • Utilizing EAP services to help employees with substance abuse;

  • Respecting employees’ privacy; 

  • Reducing stigma in the workplace.

Employers can help opioid-addicted workers find help with such tools as the interactive treatment finder created by SAMHSA. 

Now that it is common knowledge that opioids are a dangerous remedy for pain, more doctors are prescribing non-addictive pain remedies, such as Advil and Tylenol, as they have been proven equally effective to opioids as a first-line response to injury. Exercise, massage and other types of non-opioid medicines can also provide relief in cases of chronic pain. 


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