A new report by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) finds that the opioid epidemic took the lives of nearly 1,000 construction workers in the Midwest, costing the regional economy $5 billion.  

Every day across the country, more than 100 people die from opioid overdoses. One industry that has been disproportionately harmed by the opioid epidemic is construction because it includes some of the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs. The injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average for other occupations. Doctors over the past few decades have prescribed opioid pain relief to treat workers for injuries they sustain on-the-job, such as a fall or pulled muscle.

As a result, however, opioids have become a major problem in the construction industry. Although data is limited, research indicates that an estimated 15 percent of construction workers have a substance abuse disorder, compared to the national average of 8.6 percent. Additionally, opioids account for about 20 percent of all total spending on prescription drugs in the construction industry, which is 5-10 percent higher than other industries. Worse, in 2016, construction workers in Ohio were 7.2 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than other workers.

Based on available data sources, nearly 1,000 construction workers across the Midwest are estimated to have died from an opioid overdose in 2015. This includes:

  • 164 construction workers in Illinois;
  • 83 construction workers in Indiana;
  • 32 construction workers in Iowa;
  • 160 construction workers in Michigan;
  • 54 construction workers in Minnesota;
  • 380 construction workers in Ohio;
  • 92 construction workers in Wisconsin.

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The opioid epidemic costs the construction industry in the Midwest over $5 billion in lost production, forgone lifetime earnings, other costs each year. Overdoses cost:

  • Illinois $867 million;
  • Indiana $450 million;
  • Iowa $168 million;
  • Michigan $858 million;
  • Minnesota $292 million;
  • Ohio $2.0 billion; and
  • Wisconsin $524 million.

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In recent years, elected officials have discussed a variety of ways to combat the opioid epidemic. In October 2017, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act. While no additional federal funding was allocated by the Trump Administration, federal agencies were directed to devote more grant money from their budgets to combat the epidemic.

There are a variety of ways that contractors, labor unions, and elected officials can combat opioid addiction in the construction industry. These policy recommendations include:

  1. Provide health insurance that covers substance abuse and mental health treatment.
  2. Adopt new policies in health plans that limit dosages of opioid medications.
  3. Encourage physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications for chronic wear-and-tear injuries.
  4. Educate employees about responsible prescription opioid use.
  5. Provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave.
  6. Update employee policies to include regular drug testing, but do not immediately fire employees who test positive.
  7. Temporarily put employees on prescription opioids in low-risk positions.
  8. Fund substance abuse treatment programs and workforce development initiatives.

Both changes within the construction industry and government action can prevent construction workers from becoming dependent upon opioids, and can help construction workers who are already addicted. While opioids have had negative impacts on construction workers, construction employers, their families, and the overall economy, steps can be taken to combat the epidemic.

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Read the full report here.