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Construction industry builds safeguards against opioids

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When you work long days on your feet, with your hands, putting your back into it, as it were, chances are you’ll come home with more than a paycheck. You’ll also likely pick up some aches and pains.

As a worker in the construction industry, if you’ve gone to a doctor in the past 20 years — especially before the last 10 years — more often than other industries, you were written a prescription for a painkiller, said Kevin Gregerson, program administrator for the Union Construction Workers’ Compensation Program in Bloomington.

"What makes construction workers so vulnerable to opiate addiction is how dangerous and strenuous the job is, said Jill Manzo of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, a research institution that evaluates working and fiscal conditions, industries, labor standards, and public policy in the region.

"In the construction industry, there’s a lot of chronic wear and tear on the body," Manzo said. "Often, doctors will prescribe opioid drugs rather than physical therapy for their patients."

Facts and Factors

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An estimated 15 percent of construction workers have a substance abuse disorder, compared to the national average of 8.6 percent. A big reason, according the MEPI, is the injury rate for construction workers is 77 percent higher than the national average for other occupations. That’s a lot of pain that needs constant management.

It is a problem the unions have recognized since at least 2000, Gregerson said. It was then that unions and other labor organizations began investigating the plethora of opioid prescriptions being written to their members. This, he said, came on the heels of a 1995 report from Liberty Mutual Insurance noting the high number of opioid prescriptions written for workers compensation claims.

The over-prescription of opioids has become a crisis. While the rest of the world is waking up to that fact today, with everyone from President Trump to Gov. Mark Dayton looking for action to help curb the crisis, the construction industry has been taking steps to curb opioid addiction since 2009.

Safe Solutions

"When you’re looking at construction in Minnesota, you’re looking at the trade unions," Gregerson said. More of Minnesota’s construction workers — compared to its neighboring states — are represented by unions. Those unions, as part of their collective bargaining agreements, have put in place limitations on opioid prescriptions for their members. "The limit is five or seven days for opioids," he said. "Anything beyond that, and the patient has to go back to the doctor."

Furthermore, the Minnesota Legislature has regulated the length of opioid prescriptions written through workers’ compensation claims. "Our Legislature is very proactive in addressing ... how opioids are going to be prescribed," Gregerson said.

The industry has also addressed opioids through its health insurance plans, said Nate O’Reilly, business agent for the Iron Workers Local 512 in Rochester.

"That’s one of the advantages of a union (job) site," he said. "Our prevention program starts with comprehensive drug testing from the start, from apprentices to our employers and on-the-job testing."

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Insuring Health

O’Reilly said the Iron Workers, like most unions, have "generous health insurance that will cover" everything from alternative treatments to short-term addiction counseling programs. Between those aches and pains and other issues that union members might face — many of the same stress issues that affect workers in many industries — the union offers employee assistance programs such as TEAM, Total Employee Assistance Management, that provide counseling services and referrals.

"If I have a member come to me or to my attention, we can sit down and refer them over to TEAM to start with," O’Reilly said. "In addition to that, they can go to a treatment program covered through our health insurance, either in-patient or out-patient."

Manzo said the next steps, for both industry leaders and lawmakers in Minnesota and other states is to educate employees.

"They need to update employee policies for drug testing, but we have to make sure a negative test doesn’t lead to an immediate firing," she said. "Today, most unions provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave, so workers don’t feel like they have to pop a pill and get back to work.

How have opioids become a health care crisis that has caught the attention of politicians as diverse as Gov. Mark Dayton and President Donald Trump? Here are some numbers to illustrate the problem in general and how it impacts the construction industry.

5 and 80. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes roughly 80 percent of the world's opioid supply. 

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2.5 million. The number of Americans addicted to opioids. 

15. The percentage of construction workers with a substance abuse disorder, according to a survey by the National Safety Council. The national average is 8.6 percent.

20. Percentage of spending on opioids compared to total spending on prescription drugs in the construction industry. which is about 5 to 10 percentage points higher than spending on opioids in other industries.

962. The estimated number of construction workers in 2015 who died due to an opioid overdose, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Of those deaths, 54 occurred in Minnesota. Ohio led the seven-state region – Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota – with 380 deaths from opioids.

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