Opioids: An American Construction Story

August 9 2018 | by Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, FPC

Edward entered the construction industry right after vocational school and devoted himself to the trade until his early 40’s. One day he missed the step on a ladder and felt a pull in his back. He reported the incident to his supervisor and went to have it examined by a doctor. An X-ray revealed that damage to his spine had accumulated over time, and surgery would be required. The operation was a success, and opioids were prescribed for the first few weeks to alleviate pain.

After subsequent follow up appointments, Edward complained of ongoing discomfort. The prescribing doctor continued to refill his prescription, physical therapy didn’t seem to help, and he was unable to return to work. Every attempt to come back to work was unsuccessful because Edward expressed growing pain. Soon the opioids weren’t lasting as long as they did before, and Edward had to borrow pills from friends until his next refill. As you can imagine, the story declines from there… illegal drugs and ultimately death.

How Did We Get Here?

No one starts his or her construction career with the intent of getting injured. Instead, many are acting on a genuine passion for building things and see themselves as strong and resilient, believing “that will never happen to me.” However, the reality is that construction is a physically demanding and often dangerous industry. In 2016, of the more than 7 million people working in the construction industry, there was a 3.2% injury rate. That equates to approximately 225,000 construction workers injured on the job per year. Unfortunately, an injury is very often a gateway for addiction. Leading people who would otherwise never use drugs down a destructive path.

Just like no one asks to be harmed, no one asks to become addicted to prescription drugs either. In our example, Edward was like most injured employees and merely used legally prescribed opioids to treat what he thought was a temporary symptom or issue. Initially, researchers believed opioids to be a safe method for relieving pain until the situation began to spiral out of control. Further research disproved the original findings and uncovered the highly addictive nature of these drugs. Did you know that in Pennsylvania, the average number of opioid prescriptions per 100 people is between 82.2-95? This means that potentially more than half of your employees were or are currently being treated with opioids. If you have been fortunate enough not to have anyone fall victim to an opioid addiction in your company, the statistics tell us it is only a matter of time.

Next Steps

Prescription drug abuse continues to damage lives, erode our skilled workforce, and cost businesses in lost time, turnover, and health care expenses. As employers, we can no longer ignore the problem by sweeping it under the rug or turning a blind eye to it. As uncomfortable as it may be, we must start the conversation, and do so without judging the employee who faces an addiction. Now, more than ever, companies need compassion and understanding if we have any hope of turning this problem around.

Tackling this issue takes a united effort between employers, employees, insurance companies, and rehabilitation organizations. Leading the fight by acknowledging the problem, and educating and supporting our workforce goes a long way in winning the battle. Want to learn more about how you can make a more significant impact and help protect your company and employees?


Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP - Stambaugh Ness

Kristi Weierbach, Ph.D., Managing Director of Workforce Advisory Services

Kristi focuses her extensive expertise on helping clients design a workforce that is not only prepared for the future, but one that leverages disruption to thrive and succeed. Weaving together a unique blend of anticipatory tools and insights with practical solutions, Kristi provides clients with an organizational architecture that empowers them for the NextGen.

Connect with Kristi on LinkedIn.



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