Managing Well-Being in High-Stress Environments

How businesses can combat the opioid epidemic.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

We see them every day: men and women walking confidently along narrow beams near the top of a big-city skyscraper skeleton. Or perhaps it’s a roofer putting the finishing touches on a new bank building in a small town. We take their abilities, expertise, and commitment to safety for granted. But do we really know what’s going on under those hard hats and welding masks? 

A Midwest Economic Policy Institute study shows that the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average for other occupations. Because of that high injury rate — and subsequent use of prescribed opioids to control pain — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says workers in the construction industry are among the groups with the highest rates of opioid abuse and opioid overdose deaths.

With Americans spending most of their time in the workplace, construction occupations aren’t the only high-stress environments where opioids are abused. In its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC points to miners, oil and gas extraction workers, and health care practitioners as other occupation groups with the highest proportional mortality rates due to methadone, natural and semisynthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids other than methadone. It comes as no surprise that in general, those occupations are physically demanding and even dangerous under normal circumstances.

Public Health and Economic Consequences

Despite growing awareness of the opioid crisis, the numbers remain staggering. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 130 people die every day in our country from opioid-related drug overdoses. Since 1999, 760,000+ Americans have succumbed to a drug overdose…and an opioid was involved in two-thirds of those deaths in 2018. Between 2016 and 2019, HHS gave nine billion dollars in grants to states, tribes, and local communities to fight the opioid epidemic.

Besides the impact of opioid addiction and overdose on individuals and their families, their employers and companies must cope with the fallout as well. A National Safety Council survey shows that 75 percent of employers are directly affected by opioid misuse. They cite issues like absenteeism, impairment, on-the-job injuries and fatalities, employee retention, and employee arrests, ultimately leading to reduced productivity, increased costs, and a hit to their bottom line. Unfortunately, only half of the employers surveyed felt they had the right resources and policies to deal with workplace opioid use and abuse. It’s time for us to help the other 50 percent get on board, and for the owners of businesses both large and small to take action.

Integrating Prevention and Harm Reduction Strategies

It’s been uplifting for me to partner with government and business to develop forward-thinking approaches to addressing opioid use disorders in the workplace, along the continuum of awareness, prevention, treatment, and recovery. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Sharing Solutions campaign offers resources — centered on four pillars — to help local businesses address the opioid epidemic:

  • Support Employees: Employers must talk openly about substance use disorders to reduce stigma, and ensure that employees and their families get the support and treatment they need.
  • Change Business Practices: Companies in the health care pipeline must safely dispose of unused medicines, educate providers on effective pain management and safe use of opioids, and create innovative new treatment centers in areas hit hard by the opioid epidemic. 
  • Apply Core Competencies: Businesses must apply their expertise, resources, and partnerships directly to solve the most complex aspects of the opioid epidemic including technology solutions, treatment innovations, community building, and workforce development.
  • Engage Communities: Corporations must center their philanthropic efforts and partnerships on the communities they serve to build relationships and trust, with youth programs, social media outreach, and support for parents to talk to their children about drugs.

Returning to the most vulnerable group, we’re seeing specific efforts to make changes in the construction industry, too. The American Society of Safety Professionals suggests a multipronged approach to dealing with opioid misuse among construction workers including:

  • Mitigating or eliminating worksite hazards to prevent workplace injuries
  • Educating workers about opioid use disorders
  • Working with health care providers and insurers to provide guidance to reduce the risk of substance use disorders

The Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America launched the Construction Coalition for a Drug- and Alcohol-Free Workplace, whose resources are designed to help companies strengthen their substance abuse policies. Five more construction trade associations have since joined the coalition to support the goal of eliminating substance abuse-related incidences on the job site. The Center for Construction Research and Training provides a myriad of resources directly aimed at opioid prevention and identifying alternatives for pain management.

Innovative Solutions Must Start at the Top

American businesses are beginning to be creative about managing this crisis. An Indiana company had open jobs because it couldn’t find any prospects able to pass a drug test. So the company president decided to partner with a treatment facility and hire former opioid abusers who had difficulty getting jobs after completing treatment. Another CEO pledged to take the stigma out of addiction by telling his workers to come to him directly for help because they should never have to suffer alone. These are just two of thousands of corporations figuring out the role they can play in fighting the opioid epidemic…one person at a time.

References

Manzo, Frank, and Jill Manzo. 2018, pp. 1–12, Addressing the Opioid Epidemic Among Midwest Construction Workers, midwestepi.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/opioids-and-construction-final2.pdf.

Morano, PhD, Laurel Harduar, et al. “Occupational Patterns in Unintentional and Undetermined Drug-Involved and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths - United States, 2007–2012.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Aug. 2018, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6733a3.htm. 

“Poll: 75% of Employers Say Their Workplace Impacted by Opioid Use.” National Safety Council, 17 Mar. 2019, www.nsc.org/in-the-newsroom/poll-75-of-employers-say-their-workplace-impacted-by-opioid-use. 

“Resources to Prevent Opioid Deaths in Construction.” The Center for Construction Research and Training , 30 Aug. 2020, www.cpwr.com/research/research-to-practice-r2p/r2p-library/other-resources-for-stakeholders/mental-health-addiction/opioid-resources/.