Real-World Steps to Help Victims and Protect Your Company
By Roger Yarrow
The opioid epidemic isn’t a problem you can ignore in the construction industry — or anywhere in the U.S. The cost in human lives is high. Every day, 115 Americans die from opioid overdoses.
How did it start? Blame is widespread in the media, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.
Now that the crisis has been identified, governments and health organizations are scrambling to address opioid addiction with greater access to recovery services, education on pain management best practices, and more. But why should construction leaders be particularly aware of the crisis?
Construction jobs carry a high risk of injury. In fact, the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average. This reality sets workers up to become prime victims of opioid addiction. Many are not trained to bend, lift and do repetitive movements safely. Add in dangerous working conditions and the presence of heavy equipment, and the risk of worker injury goes even higher.
Opioid addiction in construction is a vicious cycle. For example, an injured worker may go to the ER, get a prescription for pain medication, and return to the jobsite before they are fully healed so they don’t lose wages. But this causes the injury to linger or get worse. Meanwhile, the worker is impaired on the jobsite, and that impairment can lead to more worker injuries, which leads to more opioid abuse.
Because of this cycle, almost 15 percent of construction workers are dealing with some form of substance abuse, and opioids represent 20 percent of the total spending on prescription medication in the construction industry.
While not as tragic as the human cost, the business cost of the opioid epidemic can make the difference between a project’s success and failure. Mistakes caused by impaired workers, lost work and theft all count in the “loss” column when it comes to opioids in the construction industry. One study put the 2015 price tag of opioid addiction for construction companies just in the American Midwest at $5.2 billion.
Proactive construction leaders are finding unique ways to combat the opioid epidemic. Prevention, jobsite monitoring, and help for addicted co-workers are all solutions that can combine to create a safe, drug-free workplace.
Train for safety
Safety starts with awareness and training. With such a high injury rate, safety training is critical for the construction industry. Contractors should do everything they can to prevent injury and eliminate hazardous jobsite situations, and that includes training and educating employees at all levels.
Training should include safety best practices, self-care, what to do in the event of an injury and how to identify someone who is operating under the influence.
No less vital, though, is frank discussion of the dangers of opioid addiction and reasonable solutions workers can use to deal with accident and injury. Creating a culture of openness and honesty about the opioid crisis is a key step towards getting workers to come to you with problems instead of hiding them.
Support your workers
Often, the cycle of opioid addiction starts because workers fear losing income or losing their jobs altogether. They use the drugs to mask pain and continue working when their bodies need rest and healing. Contractors should take this pressure into account when addressing the opioid epidemic.
Work with employees and healthcare providers to identify alternatives to opioid painkillers and support workers who choose to take this safer but slower route. Workers who feel secure in their jobs are more likely to come to you with problems and are less likely to make healthcare decisions out of panic.
Construction industry leaders are addressing this issue with benefits like employee assistance programs through their healthcare insurance providers and even employer-sponsored recovery programs. While drug-impaired workers should absolutely not be allowed on a jobsite, research shows that workers in recovery programs have the lowest rates of absenteeism and job turnover, even lower than the general workforce. In fact, research shows that each construction employee in recovery saves their employer $2,373 in lost productivity, healthcare use and turnover costs.
Monitor your jobsites
In order to effect change on their jobsites, contractors must be able to monitor and document unsafe behavior. Human monitoring by supervisors during the workday and by security personnel after hours is one solution for identifying unsafe or impaired workers. But supervisors can’t be everywhere, and round-the-clock security can be costly. Jobsite cameras, especially those with the ability to record and review footage, can fill in the gaps.
Jobsite cameras can be used to deter and apprehend thieves, another symptom of the opioid epidemic. If your jobsite must be left unattended at night, it is a prime target for thieves since construction equipment and materials have high value. The presence of security cameras can make thieves think twice before striking.
Cameras are an effective deterrent for theft, and they are an excellent motivator to keep employees operating within safety best practices when supervisors aren’t around. They are a solid investment as they save time and money, including insurance costs, injuries, schedules, loss of materials and equipment and more. But when selecting a camera, be sure it has a robust recording and review feature, or you will lose the ability to document jobsite activities.
Finding a balance
When construction leaders address the effects of opioid addiction, they’re finding a balance between the human problem and the business problem. On the one hand, there are employees suffering from injury and addiction and in need of help. On the other hand, contractors have to maintain profitable businesses and safe jobsites.
Construction leaders should consider all the options, both proactive and reactive, to minimize the effects of the opioid epidemic on their businesses and the people they employ. Finding the right mix of training, monitoring and support for your particular business is key to surviving this crisis.
Roger Yarrow is Chief Operations Officer of TrueLook, the only construction camera company to include live jobsite viewing, project time-lapsing, and HD security recording with every camera, pioneering construction camera technologies for over 20 years.