Protect Workers from Opioid Epidemic
BY Midwest Economic Policy Institute
In her Midwest Economic Policy Institute report Addressing the Opioid Epidemic Among Midwest Construction Workers, Jill Manzo shines a light on a broad-ranging public health crisis that killed nearly 1,000 Midwest construction workers at a cost of more than $5 billion in 2015.
“What makes construction so vulnerable to this epidemic is the physical nature of the work,” Manzo said. “Injury rates are 77 percent higher in construction than other occupations, and the financial incentive to get back to work before their bodies are healed is leading many down a path that can ultimately lead to abuse and even death.”
Manzo’s report notes that according to the National Safety Council’s 2017 Survey on Drug Use and Substance Abuse, 15 percent of construction workers struggle with substance abuse—nearly twice the national average. Other research has found that opioids account for about 20 percent of total spending on prescription drugs in the construction industry—far higher than its share in other industries. Across the Midwest, 60 to 80 percent of all workers compensation claims have involved opioids.
To estimate the regional impact of the epidemic on Midwest construction workers, Manzo first analyzed state-level opioid death rates reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation alongside recent research from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that found construction workers are more than seven times more likely to die of an overdose. Ohio workers have been hardest hit by the epidemic by far, followed by Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The industry’s cost from these fatalities, adjusted for inflation to 2017 dollars from a study that used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics by medical researchers at the University of California, Davis, topped more than $5 billion for the region. The $5 billion estimate includes lost production, lost family income, and other costs every year for construction workers and their families.
The report highlights a range of policy recommendations. Manzo’s executive summary of the report listed eight of the recommendations specifically.
- Provide health insurance that covers substance abuse and mental health treatment.
- Adopt new policies in health plans that limit dosages of opioid medications.
- Encourage physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications for chronic wear-and-tear injuries.
- Educate employees about responsible prescription opioid use.
- Provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave.
- Update employee policies to include regular drug testing, but do not immediately fire employees who test positive.
- Temporarily put employees who are on prescription opioids in low-risk positions.
- Fund substance abuse treatment programs and workforce development initiatives.
Manzo’s report suggests these are recommendations to offer to contractors, labor unions and elected officials to combat opioid addiction in the construction industry.