Last updated: September 14, 2020
By now, you’ve probably heard about the opioid crisis in the news, and unlike drugs like MDMA or methamphetamine that are used by tiny sections of our population, this one has widespread use. From soccer moms to school teachers to blue collar workers, opioid pain killers are used by a huge percentage of ordinary Americans, largely because they have been prescribed by legitimate doctors with good intentions.
It is not surprising that construction workers are the second most susceptible workers for opioid abuse, considering the physically demanding work they engage in. An article in Cleveland.com highlights the problems in the construction industry. There are several contributing factors:
- The aging of construction workers. Many workers left the construction industry during 2008-2010. Younger people were not coming into the industry. Construction workers are older now coupled with fewer younger workers. So older workers perform more strenuous tasks such as lifting drywall and handling I-beams. Workers in their mid-to-late 40s don’t recover as quickly from strains and sprains and may turn to opioids for relief.
- Painful physical injuries on the job site. Many tasks in the construction industry are manual labor involving lifting, bending, stooping and climbing. The materials they handle are heavy. They work outside in all kinds of weather, and surfaces get slippery. They use equipment that can cause injury.
- Mental health issues. After the Canadian Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan began studying opioid and substance abuse, they found that eighty-three percent of their clients between the ages of 30 and 40 years old suffered from mental health issues.
Many construction companies are reluctant to talk about opioid addiction and substance abuse among their employees. Not talking about the opioid crisis won’t bring a solution.
Construction sites are inherently dangerous. Your employees who are “under the influence” are at increased risk of being injured on the job. Not only do they endanger themselves, they endanger their fellow workers and possibly the general public. You could face serious liability issues if someone is injured on the job site through negligence on your part from allowing an “impaired” worker to remain on the job site.
Friendships and comradeship between employees dissuade your workers from reporting a potential problem. Sooner or later, you’ll have a visit from OSHA or another inspection group that demands urinalysis or blood samples.
You may be putting you and your company at risk legally. Make sure that you have sufficient general liability insurance. Schedule a visit with your insurance agent to ensure you have adequate insurance coverage for the worst-case scenario. For example, you might be held liable for property damage and bodily injury.
In the construction industry, your employees may have union agreements that you must honor. However, these contracts offer protection to the employer, particularly in a situation where the employee is using illegal drugs or drinking alcohol on the job site.
The safest way for employers to protect themselves and their employees is through prevention. There are a number of ways to help employees avoid opioid abuse.
- Offer rewards to employees for maintaining safe working environments. Self-policing may be effective for some employers. Another option is hiring a third-party company that specializes in work-site safety to check for best-practices concerns. Maintaining a safe working environment can reduce your insurance premiums too.
- Drug-free worksite credits for workers’ compensation. A number of states have programs in place where credits are earned by maintaining a drug-free workplace. Usually there is a requirement for random testing. The employer must develop a nondiscriminatory policy in the event that an employee tests positive. If your employees are union members, their union may offer rehabilitation services. If employees don’t belong to unions, some companies are adopting zero-tolerance plans.
- Begin a dialogue with your employees. Honesty along with being upfront might be the best way to help your employees. The Construction Coalition for a Drug-and-Alcohol-Free Workplace (CCDAFW) began in 2012. Over 5,200 have taken the pledge to “take reasonable actions to maintain a workplace free from substance abuse.”
Many construction contractors perform work in several states where standards vary from state-to-state. So it is up to each construction company owner to develop a program that promotes job-site safety. Good employees are difficult to find and retain. The development of an effective retention program should include a policy to help prevent opioid addiction, and drug use in general. Elements of any program include employee participation, drug testing, and offering injured employees lighter duty until injuries heal. Most employers find that offering treatment programs save lives and reduce accidents.