According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), opioids claim the lives of more than 130 people every day in the United States.1 A large portion of these deaths are due to misuse of and addiction to commonly prescribed painkillers. What are prescription opioids? You may know them as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Norco—medications many of us have used to treat injury-related or post-surgical pain.
Opioid abuse can simply start with an orthopedic surgery or a kidney stone. Within our industry, it most likely begins in an effort to quiet the pain of a job-site injury. But opioids can quickly hook the brain, and soon (sometimes as quickly as in 20 minutes), addiction sets in. In fact, up to 29% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain ultimately misuse them.2
Paula Harmon and Wendy Maunu, Workers’ Compensation Assistant Claims Managers at Builders Mutual, shed light on this tragic crisis and how it impacts the construction industry, offering insights and actions to confront this issue head on.
There are several reasons the construction industry is, in general, greatly impacted by the opioid crisis. Statistically, the male-dominated workforce is twice as likely to abuse opioids. Moreover, the type of injuries that construction workers sustain are significant, including head, ankle, back, and shoulder injuries. They’re at a much higher risk to be prescribed pain medication—and to continue use so they can return to work.
Plus, the nature of the work lends itself to the need for pain management. Construction workers typically work in the field their whole lives. They are more physically worn down and have often suffered long-term injuries.
What can we, as an industry, do?
Inform and educate
There is much talk in the media about the opioid crisis, but GCs need to start raising awareness in the office and on the job-site—no matter the size of their company. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in conjunction with Job-Site Safety Institute (JSI), has taken the initiative to address the opioid crisis head on. Recently, NAHB unveiled new resource materials developed through a year-long effort between NAHB and Advocates for Human Potential, Inc. with funding by a grant from JSI.
The holistic approach combines educational resources on prevention, treatment, recovery, and return-to-work. Training packages, fact sheets, and comprehensive state-by-state resource guides are also available and everything is provided free of charge.
With nearly 15% of construction workers dealing with substance abuse 3 of some sort, the conversation has to take place, starting from the top. Empower every member of your team to speak up. Talking about the issue regularly will help promote an environment where an employee may share their own struggle or a concern about a coworker.
With zero-tolerance policies, offering support for rehabilitation can be difficult since once a drug screen tests positive, employment is terminated. So, in construction, we must consider ways to be proactive after an injury. In other industries, when employees come back from injury, there is often the opportunity to go back to “light duties” upon return. This is not necessarily the case in construction because there may not be “light duty” on the job-site. Employees might take longer to get back to work and get into a pattern of staying at home.
Employers need to be involved post-injury and help assess whether employees are ready to get back to work. For workers prescribed pain medication, assessments should include plans to help them get off medications. When employees are using opioids, they’re literally risking their life to feel better. We have to help them—not ostracize them or make them feel worse.
Finally, you can work with an employment attorney to implement a drug-free workplace policy. This will help your employees stay safe and could result in a premium credit on your policy.
Builders Mutual is here for our customers.
We partner with various services to help manage the use of opioid medications, including those that evaluate for inappropriate use and overuse. We also work directly with treatment providers to offer alternative medications and treatment plans.
Our pharmacy benefits provider monitors medication distribution to ensure multiple physicians are not prescribing the same medications or potentially harmful combinations of medications. Our adjusters closely monitor provider compliance and, if necessary and where statutorily permitted, will direct treatment to another physician if over-prescribing is identified.
For additional information on the opioid crisis and its impact on the construction industry, check out these resources.
- Opioids in the Home Building Industry: Making it Your Business (NAHB)
- Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit
- Department of Health and Human Services 5-Point Strategy to Combat the Opioid Crisis
- CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality. CDC WONDER, Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2018. https://wonder.cdc.gov.