NEW YORK — Working at a construction or mining site certainly isn’t for everyone. These specialists are routinely exposed to harsh elements, extreme working conditions, and heavy machinery. Overall, a construction job entails a hazardous day-to-day experience where even the slightest wrong movement or incorrect judgment call could lead to serious injury or death. Now, a new study finds that these high-risk working environments are causing many construction workers to turn to narcotics or opioids.
In fact, researchers from the New York University College of Global Public Health have singled out construction workers as the number one profession where workers are most likely to use cocaine or abuse prescription opioids. They were also found to be the second most-likely profession to use marijuana.
The construction, extraction, and mining industries in the United States account for tens of millions of jobs, but these employees also face numerous hazards. Falls, overexertion, and equipment malfunctions are just a few reasons why construction workers typically account for the majority of annual work-related injuries or deaths in the United States. Even without suffering an accident or fall, the strenuous and repetitive nature of construction work leads to a great deal of wear and tear on workers’ bodies.
Ultimately, due to all of these injuries, construction workers end up turning to drugs like cocaine and opioids to “self-treat” and manage the pain. Sometimes, this even creates a vicious cycle where workers are inebriated on the job due to a pre-existing injury, thus putting themselves at greater risk of another injury.
“Construction workers are at an increased risk for drug use, which makes them vulnerable to work-related injuries or even overdose deaths,” says study author Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at NYU College of Global Public Health, in a release.
On a related note, previous studies conducted in Massachusetts and Ohio have found construction workers to be six to seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose.
Researchers used a decade’s worth of data (2005-2014) originally collected by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In all, information on 293,492 Americans was analyzed. From that group, 16,610 construction workers were compared to individuals working in 13 different occupations. Each respondent had been asked about their employer and workplace drug policies, as well as how often they had used both marijuana and cocaine over the past month. Opioid use for non-medical reasons was also surveyed.
After compiling all of the information, the study’s authors determined that construction workers abused prescription opioids (3.4% vs. 2%) and cocaine (1.8% vs. 0.8%) more than other professions. They were also the second most frequent marijuana users (12.3%), after service workers (12.4%).
“It makes sense that we see higher rates of construction workers using pain-relieving substances such as opioids and marijuana, given the labor-intensive nature of their work and high rates of injuries,” Ompad comments.
The research team also observed that having unstable employment or missing work frequently was associated with a higher likelihood of using narcotics. For example, construction workers who jumped from employer to employer or had been unemployed for at least a week were more likely to use marijuana or abuse opioids. Similarly, employees who missed three to five days of construction work due to injury were twice as likely to abuse opioids.
Another interesting finding from the study was that most workplace drug policies diligently look out for and “protect” against marijuana use, but are not as stringent regarding cocaine or opioid abuse. Various types of on-the-job drug testing measures, such as random drug tests, were only associated with lower odds of marijuana use, not cocaine or opioids.
The study is published in the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.