Given the demographics in the workforce and the physical nature of the work, construction companies cannot avoid learning about the opioid crisis.
That’s according to Chris Trahan Cain, the executive director of Silver Spring Md.-based Center for Construction Research and Training, a nonprofit focusing on occupational safety and health established by North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a 14-union labor federation. Cain also chairs the NABTU opioid task force.
NABTU formed the task force because leaders began seeing information that construction workers die from fatal opioid overdoses at six or seven times the rate of workers in other industries.
“The opioid crisis is a national crisis, but it seems to have particularly hit the construction industry in a really unacceptable way,” Cain said. “We had to identify steps we could take to begin to address it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, and 40 percent of those deaths involved a prescription opioid. A 2018 Midwest Economic Policy Institute study found the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average, and nearly 15 percent of construction workers deal with substance abuse. Because of this, construction industry firms need to underscore the importance of on-the-job safety measures and become aware of how they can help workers, Cain said.
“In a really hot economy like we have right now, I think employers really need to think about these things,” Cain said. “They need to have good workers on the job, and sometimes good workers have opioid use disorder. The fact is that these are not disposable people.”
Beginning the conversation about opioids in the construction industry means removing the stigma around addiction and raising awareness about it, Cain said.
NABTU offers resources for employers to talk with workers about the issue with their doctors so they can be made aware of other options for treating injuries and chronic pain.
Those alternatives are important pieces of stemming the opioid crisis since it takes only five days to develop an addiction to the drugs, according to the CDC.
NABTU provides a document called a “physician’s alert,” which is intended for construction workers to bring to their doctors to make them aware of their profession and what types of medicines they should or should not be prescribed.
In some cases, construction workers receive high doses of prescribed opioids at the direction of their doctors, leading to a dependance on the medicine that started with a valid prescription.
“You get a situation where these workers are dependant on this medicine, and what happens when health insurance lapses, or your doctor won’t give you any more prescription? You don’t have any kind of way to actually deal with this substance disorder that’s been medically induced legally,” Cain said.
Companies also can develop better plans for moving materials around job sites to reduce material-handling injuries. The Center for Construction Research and Training offers some of these tools on its website. Companies also can work with construction safety experts to evaluate how to reduce on-the-job injuries.
Another part of getting a handle on opioid addiction starts with open communication with workers. This means having sometimes uncomfortable conversations and a recovery-friendly workplace, Cain said.
“Workers who have substance use disorders need to feel that they have a safe place to go,” she said.
A company can talk about opioid use with its employees and share the resources and treatment options available through its health insurance plan. Cain notes that more employers need to think about offering health insurance plans that provide resources for addiction.
Some companies have adopted “last chance” agreements, where instead of removing a worker with a substance use disorder, they allow the employee to undergo treatment and agree that they will remain in the job as long as they pass drug tests, Cain said.
“A lot of employers are starting to take those workers back and have the agreement saying as long as they’re in recovery, (the company) is going to continue to employ them and make sure they have a paycheck and health insurance and that they can take care of their family,” Cain said.
There are many resources for employers to get informed about the opioid crisis, and it’s imperative that they access that now because of talent issues in the construction trades, Cain said.
“Because there’s a really hot demand for skilled construction workers, it’s really important to invest and think about and understand how you can keep your best workers on the job and being productive, being able to collect the paycheck that they earn,” she said
Resources on opioids in the construction industry
- Center for Construction Research and Training: cpwr.com
- North America’s Building Trades Unions: nabtu.org
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline: 1-800-662-4357
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