As much as we wish it weren’t, substance abuse is found in every industry including construction. However, the risk to life and limb in construction is higher than many other industries. The number of accidents while working at height, using dangerous tools, and moving heavy equipment are demonstrably greater when substance abuse, whether it be alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription medications.
The scope of the problem
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 70% of nearly 15 million drug users in the United States are employed. In addition, businesses are estimated to lose over $80 billion annually due to drug abuse in the workplace due to lost productivity and related health and crime issues.
In 2007, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stated that 3 million full-time workers aged 18 to 64 met the criteria for illicit drug abuse or addiction; males were twice as likely to meet that criteria. Furthermore, 8% of workers 18 and older used illicit drugs according to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Over the past 25 years, death rates have tripled due to prescription drug abuse, especially opioids such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet), codeine, and fentanyl, the opioid that felled the musical artist, Prince.
Construction has a higher risk for drug abuse than most other industries. Dr. Peter Greaney, CEO and Medical Director of WorkCare Inc. estimates 15% of construction workers have engaged in illicit drug use, including illegal and prescription drugs. In fact, among major occupational categories, construction, and extraction related occupations showed the second highest incidence of illicit drug abuse (15.1%) second only to the food preparation and service category.
Needless to say, substance abuse could be a contributing factor in the high fatal and non-fatal injury rate in construction (OSHA 2013), especially in the Fatal Four: falls, electrocution, struck by objects, and caught in or between.
Why is the construction industry so high (no pun intended)? It is because of the nature of the work. Employees are exposed to harm from the actions of co-workers and themselves. They must be able to depend on the competence of the entire team to work safely. When a worker is abusing alcohol or drugs while on the job, that competence is gone.
The consequences of substance abuse on the construction site
Since drugs and alcohol impair the ability to work and think, the user poses a higher risk to himself and his co-workers. For example, opioid use can result in drowsiness and mental confusion immediately after ingestion. Dependence and addiction can be the result of long-term usage. The same impact can be seen from other substances.
No matter the drug, use, and abuse in the workplace can cause loss of productivity and absenteeism as well as:
- Theft of materials and equipment
- Increased health care expenses and workers compensation costs
- Legal liabilities
- Poor decision-making
- Illegal activities at work such as selling drugs to other employees
- High turnover
What we can do to stop it
Four leading construction industry organizations formed the Construction Coalition for a Drug and Alcohol Free Workplace (CCDAFW). You can go to their website,www.drugfreeconstruction.org, and sign an on-line Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplace Pledge committing to working toward eliminating substance abuse in the construction industry. More than 3,300 industry partners have already signed the pledge.
However, the website provides more than that. It also contains resources such as a state by state guide of drug testing laws, guidance on how to test for substance abuse before something happens, and examples of how to talk to your employees about the dangers of substance abuse.
By establishing and promoting programs focusing on improving health, we have a conduit for introducing conversations on substance abuse as well as overall health. Part of the curriculum should be the responsible use of prescription drugs including the impact drugs have on performance and the possibility of addiction.
Another way to support a healthy workplace is through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which has been found to be the most effective way to address drug and alcohol problems in the workplace. The service can be staffed and operated in-house with agency personnel or professionals under contract to an EAP provider. The service is confidential and assists with a range of problems.
EAPs can provide short-term counseling, assessment and referral services for drug abuse, emotional and mental health issues, marital and family problems, financial mentoring, and dependent care issues.
Communicate the many options employees have for treatment. They can have access to counseling, pharmaceutical treatment, and other treatment options from behavior modification to pharmacological interventions. Research has shown that alcohol and drug treatment pays for itself in reduced health care costs that begin as soon as patient recovery.
Written substance abuse policies and the implementation of a drug-free workplace can help advance the elimination of substance abuse. Offering benefits that include comprehensive coverage for substance abuse disorders, including aftercare and counseling, reduces the stigma and provides support for a safe return to work. Focus on promoting work ability rather than disability.
Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s on-line Drug-Free Workplace Policy Builder to help you get started.
Drug testing is not required under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988; however, it may be mandated by certain federal or state regulations. Drug tests can be performed before hiring, as a random screening of the workforce, and after certain accidents. Test methods include the commonly used urine drug screen and saliva testing. The method to use depends on why the test is being done.
For example, drug usage shows up in saliva about an hour before it will show in urine, making saliva the test of choice for reasonable suspicion and post-accident testing. Urine is more convenient and easily performed for screening potential new hires.
When drug abuse is a factor in 38% to 50% of workers compensation claims, 35% of workplace absences, 35% of fatal and non-fatal injuries, and 40% of workplace theft, drug testing can be a front-line defense. Add the results of a Cornell University study showing a 51% reduction in injuries within a two-year time-frame and 11% reduction in workers comp claims after drug testing has been implemented, and it becomes an attractive practice.
Obviously, there are costs associated with drug testing. Larger companies can absorb it but smaller companies will need to look for alternatives or simply not drug test. This results in smaller companies with no form of drug testing being more exposed to illicit drug use among its employees.
Drug abuse has been and continues to be, a major source of health, financial, and productivity problems. A construction site is no place for the type of high-risk behavior substance abuse can introduce. A comparison of the costs of establishing policies and screening for drugs to the alternative clearly shows the right path to take.