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Substance Abuse in Construction and Industrial Work

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Construction and Industrial Workers

construction workersAccording to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the construction industry has one of the highest rates of the substance abuse and substance use disorders compared to other industries in the United States.

The construction industry had the second highest rate of past-year substance use disorder diagnoses over the period (14.3 percent), the second highest rate of reported past-year heavy alcohol use (16.5 percent), and the fifth highest rate of reported past-year illicit drug use (11.6 percent) compared to 18 other industries for the period of 2008 through 2012. The finding of high substance use disorder prevalences and high past-month alcohol use disorder prevalences remained consistent with controlling for gender and age.

Over all of the participants surveyed, the average rate of past-month heavy alcohol use was 8.7 percent, past-month illicit drug use was 8.6 percent, and past-year diagnosis of a substance use disorder was 9.5 percent indicating that the construction industry demonstrates elevated levels of alcohol and drug use as well as higher rates of substance use disorders.

There was no specific designation for industrial work, but the manufacturing industry and the warehousing industry were relatively low on all measures of substance abuse compared to the construction industry, and within the prevalence rates for what is considered to be consistent with the past-year prevalence rate for substance use disorders in the general population. This typically fluctuates between 8 and 10 percent, depending on the estimate.

Why Such High Rates of Substance Use Disorders in Construction?

blue collar workEven though the rates of substance use disorders in the construction industry declined from previous years (17.4 percent in 2003-2007), the prevalence still remained high compared to other industries. Figures of past-year illicit drug use and past-year alcohol use are a bit difficult to interpret; however, the relatively high figures of past-year substance use disorder diagnosis in the construction industry are little more telling. Why are there such high rates of substance use disorders in the construction industry?

The data from SAMSHA suggests that this was not explainable by the age cohort and gender makeup of most of these workers. However, according to the book Addiction at Work: Tackling Drug Abuse and Misuse in the Workplace, there are probably several reasons that construction workers have relatively higher rates of substance use disorders.

  • Many construction workers typically work long hours during the construction season. Individuals working more than 50 hours per week are far more likely to engage in alcohol use and abuse than individuals working less than 50 hours per week.
  • Many construction jobs are routine and predictable. Individuals who work long hours on jobs like this are more open to developing substance abuse and substance use disorders.
  • Related to the above reason, there is little opportunity for advancement in many jobs in the construction industry. Many individuals working in these jobs, even though they may be making decent wages, may harbor feelings of stagnation or resentment.
  • The nature of the work and the attitudes of many of the workers are similar to the “work hard and play hard” philosophy of this particular social group. In addition, many individuals working in the construction industry come from backgrounds where alcohol use and even illicit drug use are relatively accepted and common.
  • The cyclical nature of the construction industry in many states results in many individuals spending significant periods of time either unemployed or in some other position where work is less available. This may result in boredom, feelings of job insecurity, and other variables associated with high rates of substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse.

Because of the nature of the work, there are high risk factors involved in a number of jobs in the construction industry. Individuals with substance use disorders working in the industry increase the risk for accidents, lower the quality of the work, and drive up costs due to absenteeism, increased medical needs, and poor work quality.

Is There a Solution?

manual laborThere are several solutions to tackling substance abuse in the workplace and lowering the rates of substance use disorders in certain work environments. Policies regarding substance use on the job should be clearly stated. The ramifications for abusing substances on the job should be outlined and understood by all workers.

Management should be trained in recognizing the signs of substance use disorders and substance abuse in workers. Individuals displaying these signs should be evaluated, especially if they show signs of low productivity or are involved in workplace accidents. In addition, coworkers should be encouraged to discuss concerns with management in a climate of strict confidentiality.

Because of the nature of the construction industry, there are a number of demographic factors that indicate that these individuals may continue to use alcohol and illicit drugs at higher rates than the general population. The goal should be to make sure that individuals do not come to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or while recovering from the effects of drugs and alcohol. Companies should offer individuals with substance abuse issues the opportunity engage in treatment.

Under the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, drug testing is not required by organizations. The majority of employers in the United States do not test employees for drugs unless they are required to do so by regulations enacted by state or federal government. However, a 1989 study from Cornell University indicated the following:

  • Within two years after instituting drug testing in construction companies, there was a 51 percent reduction in injuries.
  • Companies with drug testing programs have over 11 percent reductions in workers’ compensation claims.
  • Larger construction companies are more likely to have provisions for drug testing their employees, whereas smaller companies that do not have these programs are more likely to be burdened with issues of substance abuse in their employees.

In line with a drug-free workplace environment, it appears that construction companies that institute a policy of drug testing for their employees significantly reduce accidents and costs. Individuals testing positive for drugs or alcohol in these professions should be offered treatment options as opposed to sanctions or termination. These programs can be offered through Employee Assistance Programs or health and wellness programs sponsored by the organization. In addition, companies can host support group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, on site for individuals who wish to attend after work hours.

Resources

Addiction within Demographics
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