How Suffolk Construction is fighting the opioid crisis


  • Construction is second only to food service in industries that have felt the impact of the opioid epidemic. Around 15.1% of construction workers have engaged in illicit drug use.
  • Suffolk Construction of Boston is stepping up in response to the issue by committing to remain in Roxbury, Massachusetts, near the Methadone Mile.
  • Suffolk CEO John Fish has prioritized employee and neighborhood assistance programs for treating and preventing addiction.

The opioid epidemic has hit every industry, but perhaps none so hard as construction. Suffolk Construction aims to help a Boston neighborhood by completing a $60M renovation of its headquarters near Boston’s “Methadone Mile,” while also providing employees with help to deal with their addictions.

Suffolk CEO John Fish has invested in Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s initiative to build shelters along Methadone Mile and train his employees to use the opioid overdose reversal treatment, Narcan. The company has also established a relationship with the nearby Boston Medical center.

Construction in Crisis

The opioid epidemic has affected the construction industry more than any other save the food industry. Approximately 15.1% of construction workers have engaged in illicit drug use as reported by the commercial insurance underwriter CNA. There are several reasons.

  • The construction workforce is predominantly male, and men are twice as likely to abuse prescription drugs as women, according to Eric Gopelrud, the Senior Vice President of the Department of Substance Abuse, Mental Health, and Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Chicago.
  • Construction laborers skew young. Young adults aged 18 to 25 abuse opioids more commonly than other age groups, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Construction workers are injured on the job more often and suffer greater physical wear due to the nature of their work than employees in other industries. The resulting pain is commonly treated with prescription opioids, to which some employees become addicted and subsequently start abusing.

Even when a worker takes opioids legitimately, there is a higher risk of accidents on the job site due to operating under the influence.

The construction workforce is predominantly male, and men are twice as likely to abuse prescription drugs as women.

Suffolk Construction’s Initiative

John Fish hopes that Suffolk, a company pulling in $3.3B in revenue annually, can make a difference. That’s why it has committed to remaining in its location on Massachusetts Avenue in Roxbury, mere blocks from what is known as “Methadone Mile” because of its cluster of methadone clinics brushing up against open drug markets.

Between the multimillion-dollar renovation of its offices, building shelters, and enlisting its employees to help, Fish is investing in one of the city’s most vulnerable areas in hopes that Suffolk can help “change people’s lives and be a catalyst for opportunity.”

Fish says getting employees the help they need is the company’s priority. He wants Suffolk Construction to do everything in its power to ensure addicted employees are treated, not fired.

The Crisis Requires a Multi-Pronged Approach

Unfortunately, Suffolk is an outlier in the industry, which remains mostly silent about the opioid crisis and its impact.

Those who do speak up agree something needs to be done. They also agree that the job is too big for a single agency to handle. Developers as well as silent investors who fund projects must acknowledge the problem. Local governments must partner with union leaders and non-union labor. Everyone affected by the opioid epidemic must be involved in the resolution. However, building momentum for solutions has been difficult.

This year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is accepting applications from states and territories to receive funding from a pot of nearly $1B earmarked for state opioid response grants for prevention and treatment initiatives. The administration also revised its Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit.

Construction may still await a reckoning with this issue, at which point the industry will have to spring into action. As Fish stated, “This issue has come home to our front doors…The more we can publicize [it] helps to change the stigma to get people to come out of their shells and speak about it.”

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