DIFFERENCES IN HEALTH patterns among different population groups is a well-established fact. Indeed, it forms the foundation for an entire field of health research, epidemiology, which has contributed enormously to our understanding of the causes of disease.
But a new report from the state Department of Public Health documenting the astonishingly high rate of opioid overdose deaths in the construction industry landed like, well, a ton of bricks.
Over a five-year period, from 2011 to 2015, nearly one-quarter of all overdose deaths in the state occurred among those who work in construction. It’s an astounding figure, one that is both alarming but also suggests that a significant dent in the opioid crisis could be made through focused efforts in this sector.
The fishing industry also recorded significantly higher overdose death rates, though this sector accounts for only a tiny share of the state workforce.
The report suggests the high rates in construction may be consequence of a perfect storm of high occupational injury rates and a lack of job security that may lead workers to grit their way through pain with medication rather than take time off to recover.
As WBUR’s Martha Bebinger points out, though injuries leading to use of pain medication appear to be an important part of the story, the study could not determine the causal relationship between opioid use and the construction industry. It’s possible, she reports, that “opioid use caused an on-the-job injury in some cases.” It’s also possible, Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier, medical director for addictions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, told the Boston Globe’s Felice Freyer, that people struggling with addiction or recovery may be more likely to go into construction.
Bebinger says the state Department of Industrial Accidents recently launched a pilot program examining treatment alternatives for those experiencing job-related injuries.
Missing from both the WBUR and Globe stories? Any reaction from the state’s construction industry. Whether employer practices within their industry account for all or only some of the problem, the bottom-line figure that a quarter of all opioid overdose deaths occur among workers in this sector should be a call to action to construction companies that this is a crisis they need to acknowledge and help address.
“Work-related injuries often serve as the initiation for opioid pain medication, which can subsequently lead to opioid misuse,” state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel said in a statement. “Ensuring that jobs are safe, that the risk of injury is low and that workers have the time for rehabilitation and are not self-medicating to keep working are all key to decreasing opioid overdose death among workers.”