Is mishandled pain causing construction’s opioid crisis?

Drive-thru:

  • The issue of opioid addiction has reached a “crisis level,” according to a construction safety expert.
  • A recent report released in Massachusetts found that opioid-related deaths among construction and extraction workers were six times higher than in other industries.
  • Construction workers report higher levels of pain than others, which could be contributing to the increased opioid use in the industry.

“Crisis level” is how Carl Heinlein describes the issue of opioid addiction in the construction industry.

“We talk about the construction industry, but it’s a societal issue,” says Heinlein, senior safety consultant at American Contractors Insurance Group. “It’s in our communities; it’s colorblind, economically blind. It’s around us. In some cases, we think workers are safer on our projects than they are back in their neighborhoods or in their homes, or wherever they go to relieve stress or reduce pain.”

Construction is hurting

A report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in August revealed that the number of opioid-related deaths among construction and extraction workers was six times higher than in other industries from 2011 to 2015. Of all the opioid-related deaths in the construction and mining industries, construction workers represented 97 percent.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that opioid-related deaths among construction and extraction workers were six times more than in other industries. Click To Tweet

The report found that the number of fatal opioid overdoses was higher in industries with higher rates of injury and illness, as well as those without sick leave and job security.

Pain is prevalent among construction workers, who perform physical, repetitive tasks and often experience injury. Studies show that 40 percent of construction workers over 50 have chronic back pain, and injured workers were 45 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than other workers.

Heinlein, who is also an American Society of Safety Professionals board member, says the problem of pain in the industry can be linked to the opioid crisis, despite the ongoing technological innovation and the industry-wide search for new ways to reduce risk and stress on workers.

“You’re always going to have some sort of bodily interaction with a physical trade, so pain is an issue,” he says. “When you go to your doctor, they want to reduce that pain. For them that may mean providing something more than an aspirin or a Tylenol, and it may be an opioid. When you take a look at the system, let’s try to prevent that hurt and that injury from ever happening. However, for that to happen, we really have to step in as a team to take a look at the pain management, the injury management, and how we get him or her back to work.”

Ignoring pain doesn’t lead to gain

Potentially reducing opioid usage, injury and risk depends on a culture shift in the industry. Workers should be educated about reporting injuries, not trying to work through the pain, and ways to manage pain beyond taking mediation.

Heinlein urges smaller companies to look for ways to partner with local hospitals, nonprofits, and other organizations so that they can educate workers on pain management.

“Companies are really digging into that and saying, ‘Hey, let’s catch this injury before it gets worse.’ There has to be a very strong education on wellness and well-being and being healthier,” Heinlein says.

More construction companies are setting up wellness programs and creating healthcare partnerships with local trade associations and unions. Heinlein urges smaller companies to look for ways to partner with local hospitals, nonprofits, and other organizations so that they can educate workers on pain management, the dangers of opioid use, how to recognize the signs of opioid addiction, and how to get help.

The Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center issued a hazard alert in August to help employers to reduce unintentional drug overdoses across multiple injuries, including construction. The recommendations include training supervisors to recognize the signs of substance abuse, like mood swings, absenteeism, and personality changes. They also advocate conducting consistent drug testing; creating employee assistance programs with help for drug misuse and other issues; and keeping naloxone, a drug overdose-reversing drug, onsite in addition to training staff on how to administer it.

The opioid crisis continues to grow and impact all areas of the country and industry sectors.

“I think we don’t truly know how bad it is,” Heinlein says. “Not everyone’s showing up and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got an opioid problem,’ nor is everyone going to the hospital. So, we probably have people who are functioning with these issues that we don’t know about.”

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