Why construction workers are at highest risk for opioid abuse, and what managers can do about it

The opioid epidemic is ravaging through every corner of the U.S. and shows little signs of slowing down. As the construction industry continues to grow with an aging workforce, how can safety professionals, medical providers, and construction managers prepare themselves and their employees?

Opioid-related deaths have surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death in the U.S. The Center for Disease Control announced that drug overdoses related to opioids killed over 70,000 Americans in 2017, a new record. This includes overdoses from heroin, prescription painkillers, and fentanyl—the synthetic opioid that caused deaths to surge more than 45 percent in 2017 alone.

An analysis from the Ohio Department of Health and Cleveland Plain Dealer found that construction workers are seven times more likely to die of an opioid-related overdose than workers in any other profession. Another report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that from 2004 to 2014, construction workers accounted for 25 percent of all fatal overdoses from heroin, prescription painkillers, and fentanyl.This is due to an aging workforce that leads to increased workplace injuries.

We consulted with our medical experts and researched potential best practices that safety managers and employers can take to help combat the opioid epidemic and prevent drug abuse in the workplace.

An Aging Workforce and Overprescription of Medication

Construction is currently booming across America, with tens of thousands of job openings added each month and record high spending. However, employers are struggling to find people to fill the jobs needed to keep up with demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an average of 225,000 construction jobs that need to be filled each month. Since employers aren’t filling these job openings, the older workers must take on these projects, resulting in the median age in construction to reach 42.6. As the workers get older, there is more potential for injuries to occur on project sites.

According to a Reuters report, work-related musculoskeletal disorders in construction rose from 6.4% in 1992 to 11.5% in 2014 among workers aged 55-64. Another finding from the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses show that the median days away from work for all construction workers are 13 days. The same report shows that construction workers in the 45-54 age group averaged 20 days away, 21 for workers 55 to 64 years old and 37 for those 65 and older in the same year.

Construction jobs require a lot of lifting, awkward postures, and other physical demands that lead to many construction workers developing back pains, shoulder problems, and more. The risk for these injuries and musculoskeletal disorders only increase as the body ages. In addition, many construction workers have little to no insurance or don’t have their own primary care physician. Many injured workers then rely on self-medication from prescription painkillers to treat their pain, resulting in high amounts of substance abuse in the construction industry.

In order to combat this issue in construction, safety managers and employers should implement preventative measures that can make job sites safer, and prevent opioid abuse.

Steps to Help Combat the Opioid Crisis

To help prevent opioid abuse, it is best practice to make worksites safer and establish a culture of safety. If a worker gets injured and seeks treatment off-site, clinics are likely to prescribe painkillers, which can potentially lead the worker down a path of addiction.

Construction jobs require physical labor that puts a heavy toll on the body. As the workforce gets older, the risk of injury and musculoskeletal disorders increase, leading to a greater amount of narcotic prescriptions and time away from work, even for minor injuries. In the Ohio Department of Health report, 73 percent of construction workers injured in 2016 were still prescribed a narcotic painkiller, resulting in more than 24,000 injured construction workers requiring time away from work in the same year.

“Striving to establish an occupational culture and environment that values safety, education, and understanding is paramount to combating this epidemic among the workforce,” said Remote Medical International Assistant Medical Director, Richard Misiaszek.

Construction managers and safety professionals can include measures such as mandatory flex and stretching exercises before shifts, utilizing proper ergonomic equipment designs, implementing the latest personal protective equipment to prevent injury, and ensuring the proper level of staffing. This adds up to a safer, healthier and a more productive workforce that can help prevent opioid use and self-medication.

Employers can also teach their workers the warning signs of opioid addiction, some of which include mood swings, anxiety, depression, and irritability. Should an injured employee require prescription painkillers, employers should consider prescription drug monitoring programs, which are electronic databases that track controlled substances within a state and can provide health services information about the patient’s behavior to provide an effective response. This helps to improve opioid prescribing by giving health care professionals tools to inform their prescribing decisions, inform clinical practice, and protect patients at risk.

According to the American Society of Safety Professionals, eliminating the negative stigma of addiction by facilitating open and honest communication between management and employees is one of the most crucial steps forward. To effectively prevent opioid abuse before it happens, workers need to be in an environment where they can feel comfortable speaking with their employers about their personal or health-related issues. Employee and member assistance programs can provide workers with a confidential and safe channel to discuss potential substance abuse issues they may be facing, among other problems. These programs help workers dealing with substance abuse to not feel stigmatized in seeking help or face possible repercussions from their employers or union.

These preventative measures can help reduce workplace injuries, and in turn lead to a reduction of opioid prescriptions and abuse.

“Opiate abuse and addiction is a major public health crisis in the U.S., and the epidemic has disproportionately impacted the construction and labor workforce. While there are many factors influencing addiction, it is vital to understand that workers are at a higher risk for this illness,” said Misiaszek.

Ensuring that construction worksites are safe, the risk of injury is low, and that workers have the support network and time for rehabilitation are all key to decreasing opioid overdose deaths among workers.

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