An average of 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2015 and 2016, opioid-related deaths increased in frequency for every single demographic for which useable data was available.

The CDC also revealed that opioids were involved in 42,249 overdose deaths in 2016. As an industry, construction had the most deaths. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently published a list of the occupations whose workers are most likely to use and eventually overdose on opioids. Per 10,000 workers: 27.3 construction workers, 23.92 Forestry and Farm workers, 8.67 Maintenance and Industrial Cleaning workers and 7.13 Repair and Installation workers make up the top of the list. The national average for workers of all kinds is 3.73 deaths per 10,000 workers.

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Photo Credit: Engineering-News Record 

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse further demonstrated that, between 21 and 29 percent of those patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them, 8 to 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder and 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin. This emphasizes the danger of introducing prescription opioids and the potentially dire consequences if opioid use is not properly managed.

Destructive path

While there isn’t a single reason that workers in skilled jobs are losing battles with addiction and dying so often, there is a common denominator: pain.

A Midwest Economic Policy Institute study found that the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average. Several factors, including the physical demands of construction work and the aging demographics of the workforce contribute to these statistics.

In a recent piece for the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), Carl Heinlein, ASSP director-at-large and senior safety consultant with American Contractors Insurance Group, pointed out: “What’s happening is that construction workers are becoming more comfortable with taking pain medications, including opioids, and that can set them on a destructive path.”

In the same piece, ASSP explained that when a worker experiences an injury on a jobsite, the employer faces the potential for the following scenario: the worker is prescribed a synthetic opioid to treat the pain. The worker then wants to return to the job as soon as possible, potentially taking more than the prescribed dosage in order to do so. The worker returns to the jobsite, even though they may not be fully recovered from the injury.

Returning too soon

Additionally, said ASSP, this scenario not only puts the employee in danger, it can also endanger the safety of other employees. Returning to the jobsite when not fully healthy increases the likelihood that the worker could aggravate the initial injury or suffer a different injury, potentially leading to sustained use of opioids. And obviously, a worker that is under the influence of opioids on the job is extremely dangerous for everyone.

The piece articulated a reality, especially in a results-driven country like the U.S., where workers feel the pressure to get back to work as soon as possible – whether it’s out of fear of escalating bills or even losing their job. But rushing back to work, as stated, can lead to a host of additional problems – one of the most dangerous being an increased use of opioids to deal with the pain and/or function at a productive level. Sadly, such a practice is merely contributing to a buildup of tolerance, and a potential addiction.

If employers aren’t careful about how they handle the treatment of workplace injuries, they could find a growing number of workers grappling with substance abuse. Now more than ever, it’s vital that companies across the skilled-trades spectrum consistently work to recognize the signs of opioid abuse within their workforce, and if it is discovered – work diligently to get the worker the help they need in order to beat the addiction and continue on with a productive career and life.

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