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Five Strategies to Deal With Opioid Dependence and Substance Abuse in Construction


By Dr. Deborah Happ, Construction Executive

According to estimates from CNA Insurance, illicit drug use among constructions workers is at 15 percent—and construction industry employees are more likely to abuse opioids than employees in any other industry (except food service).

The current opioid epidemic has been called the worst drug crisis in American history, reaching every corner of society, including workplaces across all industries. This epidemic involves the use of prescription opioid (pain) medications and illicit drugs including heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl.

A survey recently released by the National Safety Council reveals more than 70 percent of workplaces are feeling the negative effects of opioid abuse. Nearly 40 percent of employers said employees are missing work due to abuse of painkillers, with roughly the same percent reporting employees abusing drugs on the job.

Workers in the construction industry are especially at risk for prescription opioid abuse. There are several factors that contribute to the high rate of opioid abuse in the construction industry. The field is male-dominated and males are twice as likely as females to abuse prescription medications. Construction workers tend to face more physical wear on their bodies, increasing the likelihood for aches and pains. Finally, the risk of injury on the job is greater, which can lead to the prescription of opioids to treat the pain.

It’s important to note that treating opioid dependence is costing companies huge dollars. The average cost to treat a non-opioid-abusing individual is $3,435 compared to the average $19,333 for an individual with opioid abuse or an opioid dependence diagnosis, according The Impact of the Opioid Crisis on the Healthcare System, a FAIR Health Study.

The costs of opioid abuse in the workplace are not limited to healthcare claims costs. Other costs include lost time at work, job turnover and retraining. Despite the prevalence and costs of opioid and substance addiction in the construction industry, only a small percentage of those with opioid or other substance use disorders ask for or receive help.

Here are five ways construction businesses can take action with opioid dependence and substance addiction in their workplace.


Educate employees about opioids, including how they work, how they interact with other drugs and alcohol, and how they can become addictive. It’s also important to educate employees about alternative treatments for pain.


One way to influence more people to seek help is to convince them that getting treatment is the smartest thing to do. By talking about addiction like any other disease, leaders can silence the stigma and allow people to realize it’s alright to ask for help. It’s equally critical to send the message that the employee’s workplace is a safe place, and the company is there to help.


It’s important that management and staff be trained on the early signs of opioid and substance addiction—including irritability, poor concentration and declining performance—so they can intervene before the situation deteriorates. Train managers to address performance issues because that often opens up the dialogue to talk about sensitive matters. By showing genuine concern, managers gain the trust of employees, which allows them to guide their workers to the care they need.


Just as a manager would with an employee who has a medical condition, such as cancer or heart disease, managers need to offer non-judgmental support to employees with a substance abuse disorder. Remember, employees who have family members struggling with substance addiction suffer at work too. Those who are affected by a loved one’s addiction can have increased absenteeism, lack of focus and health problems related to stress.

If a business doesn’t already have one, consider providing an employee assistance program (EAP) for employees. EAP services can be an effective first step for employees and their dependents to initiate support for nonmedical prescription drug problems. An EAP can offer counseling and referral services, conduct substance abuse evaluations or connect an employee to a qualified substance abuse professional. The best thing about an EAP is that it costs the employee nothing and is completely confidential.


Ensure workers have access to quality treatment for substance addiction. Consult with the company’s health plan provider about a comprehensive plan that covers inpatient and outpatient services. Employees with opioid addiction can often benefit from medication-assisted treatment, which reduces the cravings for opioids and allows employees to work while in treatment.

By taking action and implementing these strategies, construction companies can create a safe work environment where employees feel supported and can do their best work. There’s nothing more important than sending a message to workers that the company cares about their health and well-being.

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