From 2008 to 2012, the construction industry had the second highest rate of heavy alcohol use among full-time workers, and it had the second highest percentage of employees with substance use disorder. It had the fifth highest rate of illicit drug use, according to a 2015 analysis of a national survey.
The industry employs a wide range of occupations, including laborers, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, roofers, steel workers, electricians, drillers, inspectors and construction managers. Employers include small mom and pop operations and multimillion-dollar businesses.
The diversity among types of workers and employers complicates prevention and intervention solutions. A single approach may not work for every employer or worker. Thus, it’s important to determine why a construction worker uses alcohol or other drugs and how severe the substance use is.
Threats of termination may prevent recreational drug use, but they won’t help employees with substance use disorders get the help they need.
The construction industry employed more than 10.3 million people in the United States in 2016. Because construction is one of the biggest industries in the country, it makes sense that it has more employees with substance use disorders than other professions.
But the hospitality industry employs almost 4 million more people than construction. Manufacturing employs 5 million more people. The wholesale and retail industry employs twice as many people as construction.
Yet the construction industry employed more workers with substance use disorders than every industry besides accommodations and food services, according to a 2015 study that combined data from 2008 to 2012.
Among full-time construction workers:
The numbers are worrisome for a profession that relies so heavily on focus, coordination and judgment. Most people in the industry work at hazardous job sites where inebriation or a hangover can lead to dire consequences.
The majority of fatal injuries at American workplaces are caused by transportation accidents, such as roadway incidents or workers being struck by a vehicle, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other causes of fatal injuries include falling, being struck by an object and being exposed to harmful substances.
Construction workers are at risk for each of those leading causes on a regular basis. That’s why companies go to great lengths to ensure that their employees don’t get harmed on the job.
“Making sure that every construction worker on every construction site is fully in control and absolutely sober is the best way to save lives and prevent injuries,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, told EHS Today.
Individuals who drink alcohol at least three times per week are more likely to experience injuries at work than those who abstain.
Alcohol and other drugs disrupt coordination and judgment, increasing a worker’s risk of being involved in a variety of accidents. Workers don’t have to use the substances at work to be at an increased risk, though. Hangovers from substance abuse can increase fatigue and decrease focus.
Individuals who drink alcohol at least three times per week are more likely to experience injuries at work than those who abstain, according to a 2009 review by the nonprofit RAND Corporation. Several studies have also found that rates of accidents increase as rates of drug use increase.
That may seem like common sense, especially in an industry with a large number of hazards. Construction workers are subjected to numerous risks, including falling from high elevation, cutting themselves with sharp materials and being exposed to dangerous substances. They’re also subjected to environmental hazards, such as heavy wind and extreme temperatures.
Alcohol and other drugs can cause malnourishment and dehydration, which are amplified by hot weather, long work hours and intense labor.
More than 90 percent of construction workers are men. That alone may put the construction industry at higher risk for drug use than industries dominated by women. Women have closed the gap in drinking rates, but men are still more likely to consume alcohol and have drinking problems, according to a 2015 study.
Men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs, and they’re much more likely to develop substance use disorders, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
But gender alone can’t explain why so many construction workers have substance abuse problems.
Long days that are often filled with repetitive tasks may contribute to substance abuse. Workers may use drugs to spice up their daily routines. They may also use alcohol or other drugs to numb physical pain caused by hours of manual labor.
Many construction companies drug test regularly, which may be why the industry has higher rates of alcohol abuse than drug abuse. Workers may use alcohol to ease stress after a long day in the sun, or groups of workers may go to a bar after work to socialize and relax.
In 2012, a coalition of the biggest construction groups in the United States joined forces to urge businesses to create drug-free work environments.
Today, the Construction Coalition for a Drug- and Alcohol-Free Workplace comprises a variety of construction trade associations, including:
The goal of the coalition is to organize efforts and create resources to help small businesses develop awareness and prevention programs. More than 4,000 organizations signed the coalition’s pledge to eliminate substance abuse-related incidents in the workplace.
More than 4,000 organizations signed the coalition’s pledge to eliminate substance abuse-related incidents in the workplace.
“Small businesses often don’t have the resources to develop in-depth substance abuse awareness and prevention programs,” Penny Pompei, the national executive director of Women Construction Owners & Executives, told EHS Today. “This coordinated effort by a group of construction industry organizations will provide the tools WCOE’s small business owners need to combat this danger to our workers.”
The companies that signed the pledge promised to increase awareness of the consequences of substance abuse in the construction industry and the workplace.
Many large construction companies try to reduce the impact that substance abuse has on productivity by randomly drug testing employees. A failed drug test can cause an employee to lose his or her job. But that approach may not be realistic for smaller companies that are unable to find workers who can’t pass a drug test.
Instead, some experts advocate for education. Many construction workers recognize the fact that alcohol or drug use can negatively impact work, but they don’t understand the extent of the impact.
Young workers may be more likely to spend money on substances because they have high paying jobs and don’t know what else to do with their money. Initiatives that teach young people the benefits of saving or investing money may be beneficial.
Changes in workplace culture can also motivate workers to reduce alcohol consumption. If co-workers always head to a bar after work, they can try to find a more productive way to spend time.
The federal government provides online resources to help employers understand laws and regulations related to workplace testing and drug policies. The websites also offer toolkits for creating effective policies and informational sheets to help employees understand the effects of alcohol and other drugs.
For some people, alcohol and drug use may not be a choice. If employees are unable to quit using on their own, they may need substance abuse treatment. Workplaces should be able to provide access to mental health resources in the community. Losing an employee for weeks or months may be difficult, but a healthy and successful employee will be more productive in the long term.
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