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Opioid Abuse Runs Rampant in the Construction Industry

25 years. Dave has spent his entire working career in the construction industry. Day in and day out, he pushes his body to its limits.

The repetitive, manual labor has taken its toll. Last year, it finally caught up with him. He injured his shoulder. The pain was intense.

His doctor prescribed opioids to treat the pain. Dave wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. (The bills weren’t going to pay themselves.)

So, he took a few more pills than the doc recommended. And he returned to the job site sooner than recommended, too. He wasn’t fully recovered. But he had the pills to help him make it through.

Opioid abuse in construction is a massive problem.

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What Does Opioid Abuse in Construction Look Like?

Dave is on a path that’s all too common in the construction industry. These workers are at high risk for injuries from machinery, falls, overexertion, or repetitive work. One study found that the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average.

The result is a great deal of pain, which workers then treat with opioids (sometimes without a prescription).

Where does this lead? Of all the occupations out there, construction workers are the most likely to misuse prescription opioids. Researchers have found that nearly 15 percent of construction workers deal with substance abuse.

Furthermore, these employees are six to seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose.

“It makes sense that we see higher rates of construction workers using pain-relieving substances such as opioids, given the labor-intensive nature of their work and high rates of injuries,” says Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at NYU College of Global Public Health.

And it’s a vicious cycle. Construction workers who are abusing drugs increase their risk for work-related injuries. This causes more pain and encourages more opioid abuse.

Workers like Dave put themselves at risk. And, if they’re working under the influence of drugs, they’re putting their coworkers in danger, too. Plus, they risk developing an addiction.

What Can Be Done?

“What’s happening is that construction workers are becoming more comfortable with taking pain medications, including opioids, and that can set them on a destructive path,” says Carl Heinlein, senior safety consultant with American Contractors Insurance Group. “We have to take a holistic look at this, from our wellness programs, to our healthcare, to our insurance companies, to our leadership, to the workers.”

Ompad notes “Coupled with reports of high overdose mortality among construction workers, our findings suggest that prevention and harm reduction programming is needed to prevent drug-related risks and mortality among this population.”

What Could These Efforts to Reduce Opioid Abuse in Construction Look Like?

Wayne Creasap is the senior director of environmental safety and health at The Association of Union Constructors. He suggests gathering feedback from workers and educating them about the dangers of opioid use.

“Sharing information about opioids with rank-and-file tradespeople helps them understand the impact of what goes on in their bodies and [helps] get them treated properly.”

“Getting feedback from the field about the tools and techniques that would help reduce strains, sprains and the like can help tremendously in terms of what contractors are buying,” Creasap explains. “Sharing information about opioids with rank-and-file tradespeople helps them understand the impact of what goes on in their bodies and [helps] get them treated properly.”

Even simple steps such as completing stretching exercises before shifts can help prevent injuries. This could help prevent eventual opioid abuse. Companies can also take additional steps to eliminate hazards and avoid incidents that result in injury.

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And When an Injury Occurs….

Opioids might not be the best solution to treat a worker’s injury. Contractors can work with healthcare providers to consider alternatives. Maybe a less powerful medication will do.

Or physical therapy might be needed.

To reduce the prevalence of opioid abuse in the construction industry, these drugs can’t be the go-to solution. These prescriptions may provide a short-term solution to manage pain, but they may not actually address the problem and help the worker recover.

And they may end up causing more problems in the long term.

That means the focus should be on treatment – not pain management. Contractors can make sure workers get proper treatment and don’t return to their jobs too soon. And they should watch for warning signs of opioid addiction in employees.

The focus should be on treatment – not pain management.

Heinlein notes, “We need to do a better job of working with medical providers, explain what workers do and when they should be coming back to work. It’s critically important to know who your medical providers are and explain to them…what your expectations are for the care your employees receive.”

Creating a Healthy Environment

Some contractors have started keeping naloxone on-site to try to address the overdose problem in the industry. Others have taken their efforts further by offering employee assistance programs and other rehabilitation treatment. These programs reduce fears of repercussions from employers and encourage construction workers like Dave to get the help they need.

While opioid abuse in construction is a major issue, it is something that we can beat.

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-891-9360(Who Answers?) today.

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