The opioid crisis is devastating. In 2016 alone, 42,497 people in the United States died because of opioids, while 64,000 died from all types of overdoses. The opioid death total was an almost 28 percent increase from 2015, which had 33,029 deaths. Forty percent of the opioid deaths in 2016 involved prescription medication. The most common prescriptions include Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Methadone, and Oxycodone (OxyContin). To put the number of deaths in perspective, 58,209 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War—over our 20-year involvement. In just two years, opioids have killed more Americans than two decades of conflict, and the numbers may be growing.
The large numbers are mind-numbing, and mask the personal and family crisis that each opioid death causes. Just among the staff at Builders Exchange, we can identify about two dozen friends or family members who have been touched by an opioid death. Those are fathers, sons, parents, friends, daughters, mothers and grandparents. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs are highest among 25 to 54-year-olds. Men are also more likely than women to overdose at a rate of 6.2 compared to 4.3 per thousand.
Construction has a higher incidence of accidents and opioid use than many other industries. Workers often work through injuries that should be treated with rest and physical therapy. Pain medicine helps workers cope and remain productive. Our workers are also tough and proud of working hard. They don’t want to stop, even if they are injured.
In addition, our workforce is also aging. Limited recruiting after the financial crisis has created a worker shortage and has resulted in people working in the field longer than they otherwise would have. Instead of working in supervisory roles, our older workers are still in the trenches. With age comes natural physical changes and deterioration over time. As an example, by age 40, 68 percent of patients who are being treated for back pain have disk degeneration, and 50 percent have a disk bulge. By age 50, those numbers increase to 80 percent and 60 percent. While it may be normal to have deterioration, it also causes pain, which leads to prescription opioids. Simply put, our bodies don’t recover in our 40s and 50s as they did in our 20s!
As we try to tackle this problem, we must ask ourselves, what we can do in the construction industry? Some things that we can do today include:
- Don’t start taking opioids if you have not already done so. Ask for alternatives, which are often covered by health plans in our region.
- If you must take opioids, ask for a prescription that is for a week or less.
- If you are already taking opioids, seek professional help and alternative measures.
- If you have excess pills, dispose of them promptly and properly. Don’t leave them around for friends, family, or the next injury. If the pills are in the house, someone who shouldn’t take them might end up doing it and becoming addicted!
- Back, knee, shoulder, and other common injuries can be helped with activity. Start including stretching and regular exercise to your daily routine.
- Try to maintain a healthy weight. Carrying extra weight exacerbates common injuries and makes pain harder to manage.
- Provide education programs about addiction and training on how to recognize the signs of addiction.
- Talk about addiction with your workforce. Make it one of your toolbox talks. Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and needs to be treated.
- Train your work force to use Narcan. Have kits on job sites and in the office.
Our work is inherently dangerous and has constantly shifting hazards. Opioid addiction only makes these conditions worse. Over the coming months, the Builders Exchange will create online programs for our members to help educate field workers and office staff. Our industry cannot cure the base causes of the opioid crisis, but we can help mitigate the effects and strive to provide the safest workplaces possible.
Aaron Hilger is president of the Builders Exchange of Rochester, managing director of the Construction Industry Association of Rochester, and executive director of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) of Rochester, SMACNA New York State and the Rochester Roofers Association. He serves as a trustee on building trades in upstate New York and is currently chair of the BAC Local 3 Funds, and vice-chair of the Empire Carpenters Funds. He is an active advocate for contractors, the building trades and the Rochester region. With several building trades partners, he is a founding member of Building A Better Rochester and Rochester Careers in Construction. Hilger holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology from the University of Rochester, a master’s degree in political management from The George Washington University, and an MBA from the University at Buffalo. Hilger was honored in 2007 with a Rochester 40 Under Forty Award.