Construction Workers and Substance Abuse

Learn how to spot the signs of substance abuse in construction workers and what you can do to help.

Statistics on Substance Abuse in Construction Workers

Addiction and substance abuse affect many people across the globe in many ways. Addiction and abuse frequently have devastating consequences that affect the addicts and those around them. However, some manage to overcome their addictions through programs or other treatment facilities and continue with their lives as productive citizens of society. Construction workers can be at an increased risk of becoming addicted to substances due to long work hours, stress, and lack of mental health care in some areas of the country.

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What is a Blue-Collar Worker?

Turning to Substance Abuse

It’s common for people who work in high-risk or labor intense jobs to turn to substance abuse as a means of self-medicating for depression or low self-esteem. Construction workers can be particularly susceptible to using drugs or alcohol because of job-related stress, long hours, physical exhaustion, and exposure to heavy equipment. Of course, no one plans on getting addicted to substances, but construction workers must be aware of their addiction risk factors so they can protect themselves while on or off duty.

Some alarming statistics for construction workers and substance abuse:

Why are Construction Workers Susceptible to Addiction?

Manual Labor

The nature of construction work makes workers more susceptible to addiction. Physical labor is often exhausting, monotonous, and dull; working in hazardous environments can exacerbate these effects. People who abuse drugs or alcohol may seek out substances to cope with these factors.

Chronic Pain

People who work in construction often experience pain. Various factors can lead to chronic pain, such as muscle strain, back injuries, arthritis, or even carpal tunnel syndrome. Construction workers may use drugs to mask pain or otherwise help people cope with day-to-day life because of their conditions. Over time, abuse of these substances can become an addiction and interfere with performing tasks at work.

Harmful Environments

Other factors may also influence a person’s use of drugs or alcohol, especially if they’re prone to addiction. For example, people who abuse drugs may have friends who abuse drugs. As a result, they may find themselves in social situations where drug or alcohol use is expected or encouraged. Over time, people in these environments can become accustomed to their normal state of intoxication and rely on it to feel normal.
If a person has trouble coping with their lifestyle, drug or alcohol abuse may become common. For example, if a person is experiencing chronic pain, abusing drugs can become an attempt to cope with their symptoms.

Common Addiction in Construction Workers

Construction Workers and Substance Abuse

Alcohol

Construction workers and substance abuse are far too common. They’re more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs after a long day at work. There are numerous reasons why they might do so, including high-stress levels, long hours, and physical labor. However, many construction companies don’t offer their employees sufficient healthcare coverage to help them deal with these issues without resorting to substances such as alcohol.

Marijuana

Marijuana is another highly addictive substance that construction workers are more likely to turn to after a hard workday. Heavy equipment operators, for example, often smoke marijuana to ease stress and lower their inhibitions after spending all day working with heavy machinery or supervising their crews. Contractors might also relax by smoking weed.

Opiate Painkillers and Benzodiazepines

Other common drug addictions include opiate painkillers and benzodiazepines. These substances are easy to access in construction settings because their effects help people cope with physical stress. However, they’re also highly addictive and can cause severe health problems after years of use. Many construction workers become addicted to these drugs even though they don’t use them for recreational purposes. A three-day prescription can increase the chance of misuse.5 Construction worker addiction is a severe problem that needs a proper solution. If you know a contractor who has turned to alcohol or drugs due to stress at work, encourage them to consider treatment.

A Further Look at Substance Abuse and Construction Workers

Prescription Medication Leading to Addiction

Dependence

Painkillers, like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine, work by acting on opioid receptors in your brain. This creates a pleasant feeling that can lead to dependence if you regularly use these drugs. Over time, you may need more of these medications to get high or feel normal. You may also experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them abruptly (such as pain, anxiety, and vomiting).

Tolerance

Some medications, like benzodiazepines, are used to treat anxiety disorders. These drugs affect chemicals in your brain that may be out of balance when you have an anxiety disorder. Although these drugs can relieve symptoms for a time, using them regularly or mixing them with other substances (like alcohol) can increase your risk of tolerance and dependence.

Addiction

Because these drugs affect your brain’s reward system and make you feel good by releasing large amounts of dopamine, they can cause an addiction that leads to dependence. These drugs are intended to be used intermittently, not regularly over months or years. They can also have dangerous side effects if taken in high doses for long periods. Mixing benzos with other drugs like alcohol or opioids is particularly risky, as it increases your risk of seizures, psychosis, and death.

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in First Responders

Construction workers face many of the same pressures as first responders. They’re among some of our most endangered public servants. Yet because of their job, we often assume that they can handle stress better than we can, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s one of our biggest misconceptions about those who work in construction: They’re far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than any other industry.
Unfortunately, many construction workers who suffer from substance abuse don’t see it as a problem because they don’t believe they can be treated. The fact is that first responders face similar issues with addiction as everyone else.

Early Abuse Signs

Check for these early signs of abuse:
  • Lying about whereabouts and sudden reluctance to call in sick or come into work
  • Change in appearance, such as frequent absence from grooming habits or unkempt appearance
  • Difference in how they handle money
  • Estrangement with friends and loved ones, including their co-workers, shutting them out for no apparent reason, except that it may be uncomfortable for them to see what’s happening

Severe Abuse Signs

Over time it can continue to get worse. When it becomes severe, signs may include hostility with co-workers and family members. They might begin experiencing legal problems, such as run-ins with law enforcement, or they could lose their jobs because of attendance issues or a decline in job performance. Some even end up hospitalized due to an overdose.

Seek help immediately if you feel your co-worker or loved one is suffering from addiction. Waiting can make it more difficult for them to heal and increase their risk of suffering severe health consequences, including death. Talk openly about construction workers and substance abuse with your loved ones. The only way we’re going to solve these problems is by helping our friends, co-workers and loved ones understand that there are treatment options out there that they can benefit from.

Risks of Addiction in Construction Workers

Disregard to Safety Practices

Construction workers are prone to many hazards. In 2019, there were more than 5,300 fatalities on construction sites. This statistic represents more fatalities than any other industry.6 Construction employees must adhere to strict safety procedures to prevent injury or death. At times, however, drug abuse may impair a worker’s judgment, and they may be less likely to follow protocols that could lead to disaster. In addition, construction jobs often involve heavy machinery that is potentially dangerous if operated under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Fatal Injury

A significant amount of evidence shows construction workers and substance abuse can lead to fatal workplace accidents. Construction sites are dangerous, but they become even more hazardous when workers are impaired by drugs or alcohol. Those construction workers and substance abuse may neglect their health, which could eventually impact their ability to complete tasks on a construction site. This can lead to physical injuries that require medical attention or cause employees to take sick days from work.7

Overdose and Mortality

Construction workers fighting an addiction put so many people at risk, especially themselves. Over time addictions can get out of hand, leading to overdoses or even death. Construction workers and substance abuse are six to seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose.7 Many working on a construction site are already under pressure from tight deadlines and money issues that may lead them down a path towards substance abuse. This can quickly escalate into more serious problems such as addiction with possible deadly consequences if not addressed promptly.

Alcoholism vs. Alcohol Use Disorder

It’s essential to keep in mind that alcoholism is a chronic disease of the brain, specifically an addiction disorder. Alcoholism is different from other diseases because it isn’t caused by a virus or bacteria but by repetitive behaviors. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is another term for alcoholism, referring to individuals who may not be alcoholics but still have problematic drinking habits, such as binge drinking or dependence on alcohol.

Alcohol use disorder is characterized by a physical dependency on alcohol, which becomes more important than other responsibilities in life. Alcoholics can suffer from many problems, including depression and anxiety and severe health issues like liver disease.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is a dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption characterized by consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. Binge drinking is generally considered a more dangerous form of alcohol use disorder because it increases a person’s risk for immediate physical harm, including death from alcohol poisoning.
In 2019, 25.8% of people 18 and older reported that they’ve recently engaged in binge drinking. When people consume twice the binge drinking threshold, they’re 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related emergency department visit. When bumped up to 3 times the limit, that statistic jumps to 93 times more likely for an alcohol-related ED visit.8

A Further Look at AUD vs. Alcoholism

How to Approach a Co-worker with Suspected Alcohol Abuse

Approach your co-worker outside of work hours to create a comfortable, low-pressure environment. Make sure you’re in a private place where you won’t be interrupted, and when speaking with your co-worker, be compassionate and understanding.
As you’re speaking with your co-worker, approach them with an open mind. Avoid assuming they have a substance abuse problem since most people who struggle with alcohol abuse don’t realize they have a problem.

Early Intervention

Early intervention is an essential part of overcoming substance abuse. The sooner your co-worker gets help, whether from rehab or treatment, friends and family can get involved in their recovery journey. Despite potentially difficult circumstances between you and your co-worker, you have a responsibility to act on it if you suspect your co-worker has a substance abuse problem.

Denial

It’s common for their first reaction to be denial. Remain sympathetic but make it clear that you’re there to help. Most people with substance abuse problems feel more empowered when they have a friend, family member, or co-worker who can listen and offer support.

Alcohol Withdrawal Signs

During alcohol withdrawal, individuals will have both physical and psychological signs. It can endure terrible symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and even seizures while suffering from alcohol withdrawal.

Withdrawal can be devastating to experience, but it’s not impossible to overcome when you know what to expect as you move forward with your recovery process. Also, knowing how long your withdrawal might last could help you find ways to deal with it correctly to avoid any relapse or cravings for substances again.

Physical and Psychological Signs

Common physical signs are dilated pupils, sweating, palpitations, restlessness, and insomnia. Your psychological state may worsen during alcohol withdrawal as you can get depressed, anxious, or even hallucinate at some point. However, it’s vital to remember that these symptoms are temporary, and they’ll eventually go away with time after going through detox. During alcohol withdrawal, you might be feeling ill all over your body. Still, usually, it won’t last longer than a few days if detox is well planned out for your specific needs based on factors like medical history.

What Should Employers Do to Address Functional Alcohol Problems in the Workplace?

Most employers don’t know how to deal with alcoholism in the workplace. They tend to overlook a person’s drinking problem until it becomes so severe that it can no longer be ignored. Instead, an employer should establish workplace policies or assistance programs that specifically address alcohol-related issues and give appropriate training for managers and supervisors about handling these problems.
Employers must show support for employees who are in recovery from substance abuse. Those struggling with addiction need positive role models to help them get through these issues. Don’t assume every employee with an alcohol problem is an alcoholic. Alcoholism and drug addiction aren’t one size fits all types of illnesses, so don’t write them off as just being weak-willed or wanting to drink. An individual suffering from substance abuse needs all your compassion, care, understanding, and commitment to recovery to return to work as a healthier person.

Addiction Treatment

Construction workers and substance abuse are very common as they have a greater-than-average incidence of substance abuse, partly because their work exposes them to hazardous materials and environments. Work-related stressors such as deadlines, long hours, sleep deprivation, and exposure to dangerous chemicals can increase people’s risk for alcohol or drug use. Addiction treatment can come in the form of detox, medications, and therapies.

Detox

The first step in substance abuse treatment is detox, which involves relieving a person of all substances. This can be done in an inpatient or outpatient facility, depending on several factors. Detox usually lasts a few days, depending on its intensity. A medical professional supervises it to prevent severe complications like seizures, heart attack, brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, and allergic reactions to medications used for sedation during withdrawal. The medical professional may prescribe medications during detox to relieve pain and other symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and nausea.

Therapy

After discharge from a medical facility, individuals typically enter an outpatient addiction treatment program. These programs involve therapy sessions with therapists and support groups that help provide structure and emotional support while recovering from addiction.
Be clear about your treatment goals and any concerns you have to get the best care possible. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, help is available.