Construction workers and miners are used to physically demanding, often dangerous work. Yet these jobs may also expose hard-hats to another risk: substance abuse.
A recent study found that workers in these industries are more likely than other workers to use opioids and cocaine. A little over 3% of those employed in the construction trade and extraction industry had used non-prescription opioids over the past month, compared to 2% of other types of workers, according to the research, which was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Cocaine use was also more common.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed nine years of federal drug use data, including surveys about workers' use of marijuana, cocaine and non-prescriptions opioids.
Roughly 7.5 million Americans work as hourly employees in the construction and mining and extraction industries, making it one of the largest industrial sectors in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This workforce, which is overwhelmingly male, typically earns less than $50,000 a year.
More than 10 million people misused prescription opioids in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 130 people die every day from opioid-related rug overdoses, according to the agency.
Some of the illicit drug use in these fields could stem from the high incidence of work-related injuries in construction, according to Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at NYU College of Global Public Health and the study's lead author. Like many Americans addicted to opioids, many construction workers are prescribed the drugs to alleviate pain from on-the-job accidents, and later became dependent on them.
"We know that people working in construction and extraction are more likely to experience injury. They do quite a bit of physical labor and there is probably a lot of pain, so some of this may be self-medication, in particular for marijuana and non-prescription opioid use," Ompad said. "They might have been prescribed, but if your doctor stops prescribing them and you have issues around dependence or are still feeling pain, you may try to find alternative sources for those prescription opioids."
Low pay and job insecurity, including variable hours and income, could also set the stage for substance abuse in the construction trades.who were more precariously employed were more likely to report drug use, the study shows. In fact, missing three or four days of work per month because of illness or injury was associated with a significantly higher incidence of non-prescription opioid use.
"There is a wide variety of experience and pay in the construction industry — some people make minimum wage — and for those folks, there is often quite a bit of financial strain," Ompad said.
The new report doesn't draw any conclusions on whether drug use triggers more work injuries, or if workers used drugs to mitigate pain related to their physical conditions.
"Sometimes injuries lead to drug use and sometimes drug use leads to injuries. I think both things can be happening," Ompad said.
It's also not clear whether drug use took place on the job or outside of work hours. Meanwhile, Ompad cautioned against stereotyping construction workers based on the findings.
"We need to be careful not to frame this as construction workers are all using drugs and are using them on the job because that's not what the data would suggest. These are hard-working people that are building our cities and towns."