Construction Safety: Opioids in Workplace

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The opioid epidemic impacts people across every industry. But construction workers are at greater risk than others.


  • The construction industry has one of the highest injury rates.
  • Construction workers are often prescribed opioids after injuries.
  • Construction workers have higher opioid overdoses death rates.

Construction: a Dangerous Job

Construction is one of the most physically demanding and dangerous occupations in the United States.

The injury rate for construction workers is 77% higher than the national average, according to a study by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute.

Construction workers pull, move, and lift heavy equipment and building materials. They’re exposed to hazardous chemicals, tools, and machinery.

All of this physical activity and proximity to hazards takes a toll, with injury and illness rates of construction occupations 4x higher than the average for all other occupations.

Opioids Often Follow Construction Injuries

Healthcare professionals are being more cautious about prescribing opioids as the opioid epidemic has become the focus of more attention – and regulation – in the U.S. Between 2013 and 2017, opioid prescriptions decreased by 22%.

But opioid are still commonly prescribed for construction injuries.

In recent years, the majority of workers compensation claims have involved opioid prescriptions – as high as 60- 80% in Midwestern States.

In Ohio, changing standards have led to fewer opioid prescriptions overall, yet 73% of injured construction workers were still prescribed a narcotic painkiller in 2016.

It appears doctors are still leaning heavily on prescription opioids following serious injuries. While opioids may be necessary to treat pain in some cases, their use still brings a real risk for construction workers.

Substance Abuse in the Construction Industry

The construction industry has a higher rate of alcohol and illicit drug use than other industries.

Nearly 15% of construction workers deal with substance abuse compared to an average of 9.5% of all other industries, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Prescription opioid use can easily turn into substance abuse.

The CDC warns that “anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them.”

When taken for a short time (less than 90 days) as prescribed by healthcare professionals, opioids are generally considered safe. However, a study of 9,596 workers’ compensation claims found that approximately 30% of claimants continued to fill opioid prescriptions long-term; beyond 90 days from injury.

Regular, long-term opioid use can lead to psychological and physical dependence, addiction, and can even lead to illicit drug use.

People who are addicted to prescription opioids are 40x more likely to become addicted to heroin, which can often be cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pills. As many as 4 out of 5 people addicted to heroin report their addiction began with prescription pills.

Construction Overdose Deaths

The construction industry is one of the most dangerous in terms of worker fatalities.

Should opioids become the fifth on the Fatal Four list, as one of the leading causes of death for construction workers?

Construction occupations have the highest mortality rates for drug overdose deaths for both heroin-related and prescription opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States between 2007 and 2012.

The risk extends beyond the borders of the U.S. In British Columbia, 20% of opioid overdose victims work in the construction industry.

Addressing Opioids in the Construction Industry

The opioid epidemic costs the construction industry billions each year in lost productivity, income, pain and suffering, and fatalities.

What can construction business owners and executives do to protect their workers, jobsites, and bottom lines from the impact of opioid use in the construction industry?

Drug-Free Workplace Programs

Drug-free workplace programs can be cost-effective ways to keep employee safe and save employers money. Consult with your legal and human resources teams to create a clear, written policy that addresses employee responsibility related to potential impairment from prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

Drug Testing

Drug testing can be a powerful tool for preventing drug-related accidents, injuries, or fatalities. Both pre- and post-employment drug testing can help deter drug use. But you don’t have to fire an employee if they test positive for opioids, however.

Contractors can save up to $2,400 annually from an employee who recovers from a substance abuse disorder.

Provide Health Insurance with Substance Abuse Benefits

Only 1 in 10 Americans with substance abuse disorder receive treatment. Yet addiction is an illness that can be treated.

Make it easier for your employees to get the help they need by providing health benefits that cover substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Ensure a Safe Workplace

Workplace safety is crucial in the construction industry. Not only can you prevent accidents and injuries from occurring in the first place, you can also prevent opioid use, misuse, and overdose death resulting from a prescription following a workplace accident.

Educate Employees

Incorporate opioid education into your safety training program. In many instances, alternative methods of pain management can be as – or more – effective as opioids. And workers may not realize the high potential for addiction or overdose death that comes from a prescription medication. Give them the tools they need to better navigate injuries.

Provide Paid Time Off

Many times workers turn to opioids as a quick-fix for injuries so they can get back to work quickly. Provide adequate paid sick leave to employees so they have the time they need to rest, recover, and recuperate from minor injuries or strain. This could reduce the likelihood of a hurt employee turning to opioids in order to quickly return to work - and their paycheck.


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