Crisis in Construction: Increased Risk of Opioid Abuse in the Construction Industry

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. The construction industry, in particular, has been disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic. According to North America’s Building Trades Union, the overdose rate for workers in the construction industry is seven times that of the general population. But why?

The work is physically intensive and the risk of suffering a work-related injury is higher than the national average in other occupations. Laborers tend to have limited job security and minimal benefits, such as sick leave, which often prevents them from seeking help for their pain or for their addiction. Workplace culture also plays a role. On many construction sites, prescriptions are readily passed amongst and between co-workers. The “tough-guy” mindset of a male-dominated occupation discourages workers from seeking help. Workers often pop pills to push through the pain and self-medicate to stay on the job.

While the CDC released guidelines in 2016 aimed at reducing the number of opioids prescribed for chronic pain, some physicians are still writing these medications. Local unions have been instrumental in helping spread awareness regarding the risks of opioid addiction in the construction industry. Employers can help to reduce opioid addiction risks as well. For example, maintaining a safe work space and preventing onsite injuries, from the very start, is the best way to ensure opioid use never begins. Employers can also educate their employees about the risks of opioid use, the prevalence of addiction, and the long list of pain management alternatives readily available in the clinical market. Workers’ compensation insurance providers can also help to minimize the impact of opioids on laborers by policing opioid prescriptions ordered by pain management doctors and enforcing applicable state and federal guidelines through their authorization of treatment.

As with any other crisis of this magnitude, the opioid epidemic in the construction industry is a complex problem that will require a sustained and collective effort to resolve. Employers and carriers in the construction industry are likely to face increasing pressure to take steps to help reduce or eliminate opioid addiction risks.