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Inside Construction’s Battle with Opioids

Suffolk CEO John Fish. Credit: Cameron Sperance/Bisnow

By Cameron Sperance and Chuck Sudo for Bisnow

The American opioid crisis has been declared a national public health emergency, but the U.S. construction industry does not seem ready to take action regarding its own significant role in the deadly epidemic.

The $1T industry has been hit harder than almost any other sector of the economy in a health crisis that takes nearly 100 American lives each day. But it has been largely silent, more concerned about perception than the number of workers who are addicted to opioids.

Bisnow reporters reached out to — and were rejected by — 17 construction companies and workers at 27 construction sites nationwide. Only two executives were willing to speak on the record. Most explained away silence as not a sign of denial, but of fear over insurance hikes or not wanting to give the illusion they were operating “dirty” sites.

Nearly everyone agreed it was a problem with a solution bigger than one entity could handle, a problem they feel the industry needs to step up and tackle.

Boston-based Suffolk is one of the country’s largest construction firms, with an annual revenue of $3.3B, Suffolk CEO John Fish said, and offices in Florida, California, New York and Texas. Suffolk’s headquarters is steps away from a stretch of Boston known locally as “Methadone Mile.”

Every day, hundreds of people line the sidewalks of this neighborhood. The area is known for a spate of methadone clinics steps away from the city’s pre-eminent bazaar for illicit drugs. Some of those seeking treatment in Methadone Mile or overdosing across the country work in construction.

Developers and construction company owners, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Bisnow there is a problem in the industry, and it has made reliable labor an unattainable commodity across the country.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a former building trades president and a recovering alcoholic who is 22 years sober, is a pivotal voice in helping Boston tackle the matter, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council No. 35 Director of Organizing John Doherty said.

For real change, efforts should come from more than local governments, he said. It needs to come from everyone impacted by the epidemic, including developers, the silent investors funding projects, union leaders, nonunion labor or just a passerby noticing someone in need of help.

The Need to Wake Up

Construction-specific data in relation to the opioid crisis is limited, but there are some clues as to how dire it has become. An estimated 15.1 percent of construction workers have engaged in illicit drug use, according to a report by commercial insurance underwriter CNA. This is second only to the food service industry. Others point to construction as being susceptible to the epidemic simply because of what gender is most prevalent in the construction workforce.

“The primary workforce in construction is male, and they’re twice as common to abuse prescription drugs than females,” said Eric Goplerud, Senior Vice President of the Department of Substance Abuse Mental Health and Criminal Justice Studies at NORC at the University of Chicago.

Construction workers, by the physical nature of their jobs, often suffer the wear and tear on the body that, in recent history, would have led doctors to prescribe opioid pain medication in order to allow them to return to the work site. But the short-term solution can have long-term ramifications, both personal and financial.

An Illinois-based construction firm of 150 employees could face $57,387 in lost time, turnover and healthcare expenses from substance abuse, according to a calculator, created by the National Safety Council, NORC and Shatterstock, that allows employers to enter their industry, organization size and location to determine how much substance abuse might be costing their company.

Using annual federal surveys on health and drug use, the groups pored over three years of data. They reinterviewed employed adults and asked about their occupations and industries in order to reach their findings.

In addition to being predominantly male, the construction workforce also tends to skew younger. Adults age 18-25 are more likely to abuse opioids than any other demographic, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Jim Johnson, CEO of G.E. Johnson Construction, became determined to become an industry leader in the fight against opioids and is working with Face It Together, a drug advocacy group, to redesign its testing panel to add opioids and prescription drugs to its list of testable drugs. G.E. Johnson conducts drug screening for mandatory pre-hires, post-accident, for cause and randomly, but its testing panel is outdated. Currently, G.E. Johnson tests for alcohol, marijuana and amphetamines.

For larger firms like G.E. Johnson, there are added obstacles to implementing a new, standardized drug testing policy. G.E. Johnson employs 800 workers in six states and farms out 80 percent of its work to subcontractors. Johnson said that, while those subcontractors are bound to G.E. Johnson’s commitment to running a drug-free workplace, the problems arise when those subcontractors hire other firms that are not on G.E. Johnson’s payroll.

Fish said universal drug screening, which would identify the scope of drug use, is the first step in taking down the opioid epidemic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a lengthy, but exceptionally well-written and well-researched article on one of the most important and under-reported issues currently facing the construction and skilled trades industries. We encourage you to read it in its entirety. We also encourage you to reach out to the writers and share your own information and experiences.

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