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Construction workers are among the hardest hit population when it comes to opioid overdose deaths. Between 2011 and 2017, one in four (25.3%) construction workers with work-related injuries used prescribed opioid pain relievers, compared to less than one in 10 (8.9%) of their counterparts who were not injured. And recent state-level studies show that construction workers are six to seven times more likely to die of an overdose than workers in other professions.

What’s more, the average annual health care costs for an employee with an untreated Substance Use Disorder (SUD) range from $8,255 to $14,000, nearly double the costs of an average employee with no SUD, according to the National Safety Council.

The good news is that there are practical steps construction leaders can take to mitigate this problem in the workplace. An integrated approach should include comprehensive safety policies and protocols, substance misuse and addiction education, and support for employees who need help.

It should go without saying that a solid safety program to prevent workplace injuries from occurring is the first place to start. If a company’s days without injuries are not improving, or its workers’ compensation claims are headed in the wrong direction, it’s time to beef up the safety program. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration offers numerous hazard reduction resources specifically for the construction industry.

Next, construction companies must make education programs about drug misuse and addiction readily available to employees, so they can understand the risks associated with prescription opioids and how to prevent possible misuse. A variety of quality resources can be obtained from the Center for Construction Research and Training.

In addition to employee education, companies should also develop clear policies specifically focused on drug prevention in the workplace. These policies should clearly outline:

  • when and how to lead an employee to services, such as a wellness vendor, employee assistance program or telemedicine;
  • when, how and why drug testing might be needed and/or administered; and
  • what every employees’ role is when it comes to maintaining a safe workplace.

Effective policies can also provide training and education for managers and supervisors on how to properly approach employees they suspect may be struggling.

It’s also a good idea to work with health insurers to ensure employees have access to alternative pain management programs. These approaches can provide participants with a variety of options to treat pain without the use of addictive prescription opioids and reduce the probability of expenses for future substance misuse treatment.

Offering employees a drug deactivation and disposal program within existing health or wellness programs can be an effective way to prevent employee substance misuse before it even starts. According to a study from JAMA Surgery, 70% of opioids prescribed for post-surgical pain management go unused—making them available for possible misuse. The best way to combat these risks is to take unused drugs out of circulation by providing employees with a simple disposal option to clean out their medicine cabinets, like at-home drug deactivation and disposal bags.

Rather than encouraging workers to flush their unused prescriptions down the toilet or toss them straight in the trash (both harmful to the environment and allows for possible misuse), drug deactivation and disposal bags render medications inert, nonretrievable and safe to throw away in the normal household trash. Combined with an employee education program around how to safely store and dispose of medications, an employer-sponsored disposal option can help employers save as much as 25 cents per health plan member per month by reducing claims associated with opioid use disorder.

Finally, employers must support their workers struggling with a substance use disorder by eliminating the stigma that so often accompanies substance misuse. Efforts to destigmatize addiction should start at the top of the company and be present throughout the entire organization. Be sure to work with the appropriate executives to establish a company value statement that aims to decrease stigma and supports addiction prevention and treatment.

We all know that potentially hazardous situations are part and parcel of working in construction. When employee injuries occur, it’s vital to understand that treatment for those injuries can lead to potential for substance use disorder. With a thoughtful, integrated safety and substance misuse prevention program, however, construction leaders can make great strides in keeping all their employees healthy on and off the worksite.


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