Last updated: February 24, 2020
Illicit drug use is a major problem in the construction industry and it it costs American construction companies billions of dollars every year due to loss of productivity, cost of accidents, and compensation claims. The magnitude of the problem is expected to sharply increase owing to the slew of marijuana legalization and decriminalization in a growing number of states in the country. In light of this, the construction industry is expected to adopt aggressive strategies to counter the mounting challenge. It’s clear that the construction industry is putting up a strong fight in order to keep workers and others safe from the dangers that drug use present.
Effects of drug use in the construction industry
Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that drug use in the construction industry is the second highest at 16.5%. These troubling numbers are also corroborated by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The problem for the industry is significantly magnified due to the nature of their work, since construction involves more high risk hazards compared to any other industry. Mental or physical impairment of ability, as well as the lack of ability and experience of replacements (for absentees), impacts safety on the construction site, which, affects all employees as well as anyone they cross paths with.
The prevalent usage of drugs at construction sites is also believed to be a primary factor behind the industry’s high fatality rate, which stands at 9.8 per 100,000 full-time employees.
How is the construction industry fighting back?
Hiring military veterans
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the construction industry will generate about 1.6 million jobs by 2022 due to the nation’s continued economic growth, which always grows in tandem with the construction and building industry. However, instead of just random hires, many companies in the industry are trying to recruit higher quality employees for their firm. One obvious source is military veterans.
Military vets are great employees because . They’re highly disciplined, punctual, adhere to company rules, and generally avoid drugs. For these reasons, it is no surprise that hiring vets is a wise decision that the construction industry is eagerly adopting.
Contractors are already making inroads at recruiting from this valuable demographic. In 2014, working alongside the White House, over 100 construction companies pledged to hire 100,000 military vets in the next five years. Even the Armed Forces Support Foundation is trying to assist vets in getting placements in the industry by creating programs like Hire A Hero.
Jack Olmstead, of Tri-City Electric explains, “Our challenge was twofold. One part was finding enough qualified applicants who were willing to work hard, and the other was finding applicants who didn’t have a substance abuse problem. We generally don’t have those challenges with veterans because they are a different breed of people. They show up on time, work hard, and they don’t cause problems.”
Jon Spivey, a Navy Veteran who runs USA Mobile Drug Testing of Atlanta explained why. “It’s not that there is no illicit drug use within the military, however, it is extremely low compared to the civilian population. This is due to two factors; a zero-tolerance drug policy, and most military personnel simply aren’t willing to endanger or let down their fellow service members. That mindset doesn’t go away just because you get out of the service. It’s part of your character, it’s who you are.”
The fight against drug use is a serious one for the construction industry and it is also complex. Instead of utilizing one specific measure to combat drug use, the construction industry will likely continue to use various measures that fight the problem from different angles.
Developing and supporting trade programs in schools
Trade programs, where students in high school are taught a trade such as construction, HVAC, or plumbing, solve two immediate and critical needs for the construction industry—finding enough skilled workers, and finding workers who don’t have a substance abuse problem.
These programs, which are becoming increasingly popular because of the ludicrous costs associated with a college degree that doesn’t matter to employers today. They’re also becoming popular because of the demand for skilled workers, which has driven their salaries well beyond what a typical college graduate makes.
The benefits to employers are many. Obviously, it creates a steady and reliable pipeline of potential job candidates, and since they’re connecting with them earlier in life, they have an opportunity to help mold them into responsible, hard-working adults who are less likely to get into drugs in the first place. It’s a classic win-win scenario where the employees, employers, and industry as a whole, gain a lot for the arrangement.
Drug testing is not mandatory for construction workers under federal law—although it may be mandated in some states. However, since impairment is the leading cause of most workplace accidents at construction sites, drug testing has become increasingly prevalent in the industry.
Implementation of a comprehensive workplace drug testing program can do wonders for a company’s bottom line, safety record and morale. A study by Cornell University revealed that companies experience a 51% reduction in workplace injuries within two years’ of implementing drug testing programs. Workers’ compensation claims also dropped by 11.41% during the period. It appears that deterrence is an effective strategy after all.
Many contractors conduct urinalysis, oral fluid. or mouth swab drug testing on a random basis. Most also have a mandatory post-accident drug testing policy to determine if drugs and/or alcohol played a role in an accident, as well as pre-employment drug testing to eliminate drug users in the first place.