Content Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH

Construction Workers and Substance Abuse

Construction workers are an integral part of our infrastructure. In fact, without their skills and hard work, countless buildings in towns and cities across the country wouldn’t exist. They make up one of the largest employment sectors in the U.S. Because of the nature of their work, the link between construction workers and substance abuse is growing.

Many construction workers do labor-intensive work every day. In these environments, there’s a significantly higher risk of injury. Doctors often prescribe opioids to manage their pain. Opioids are well-known for successfully managing moderate pain. They’re also well-known for their addiction potential, which has led to a massive opioid epidemic in the U.S.

Not only is construction work physically taxing, but it’s also dangerous. New York University conducted a study that revealed: “construction workers are more likely to use drugs than workers in other professions.”

“Compared to all other professions,” says the study, “construction workers had the highest prevalence of misusing prescription opioids (3.1 percent vs. 2 percent) and cocaine use (1.8 percent vs. 0.8 percent).” But that’s not all.

“Construction workers also had the second-highest prevalence of marijuana use after those in-service jobs (12.3 percent vs. 12.4 percent, compared with 7.5 percent in non-construction occupations). Construction workers are looking for pain relief. Many of them find opioid addiction instead.

This is certainly a concern because of the risk of injury that comes with these occupations. The vicious cycle with construction workers and substance abuse is difficult to break.

A Vicious Cycle

The Law Offices of Howard Kitay have been representing construction workers for over 30 years. “Falls are the leading cause of death in construction. Construction workers often work from great heights, such as the tops of buildings, tall scaffoldings, and ladders.”

But that’s not all. The law firm notes that they’re also vulnerable to collapsing trenches, cave-ins, strikes by falling objects, back injuries from heavy lifting, and more. The intensity of the pain these accidents cause can be mild, moderate, or severe.

The people in these dangerous occupations visit a doctor to heal their injuries and manage their pain. Although doctors prescribe opioids for pain, the prescriptions are not unlimited. As rules change for doctors who prescribe opioids, their practices are more mindful.

Instead of prescribing medications until the pain stops, they prescribe them for shorter periods. That means they renew prescriptions for opioids less often than they did before the opioid epidemic. Frequently, patients develop an addiction to pain pills by the time they take their last one.

This compels them to turn elsewhere for the pills. However, getting the same pills on the street is quite expensive. For that reason, construction workers often replace them with cocaine, heroin, or fentanyl. All of these are significantly less expensive.

They use cocaine to stay awake during overnight shifts or long hours due to tight deadlines. Some occasionally drink alcohol to spice up tedious jobs, in addition to managing pain. Others have the mindset of “Work hard, play hard.” This leads to a major concern with construction workers and substance abuse. Addiction already contributes to a vicious cycle of dysfunction, but having a construction worker further complicates the issue.

 Missed Days at Work

Construction work is sporadic. It often relies on weather and the availability of projects. Any days of missed work are a hardship on people who work in this industry. So, many of them work while they’re sick or injured if they can.

At first, they may perceive drug abuse as helpful in maintaining their attendance at work. Substance abuse eventually leads to absences at work. First, as your tolerance builds up to the drug, you need more. That’s because it’s no longer effective as your body becomes used to it.

So, this tool (no pun intended) that some construction workers rely on to cope with demanding construction work isn’t effective anymore. With the break-through of pain happening more often, construction workers find that they must miss work more often. Additionally, the symptoms of withdrawal are intense, which leads to even more absences.

Another downfall with construction workers and substance abuse is that they become unreliable to their managers. That’s because addicted construction workers miss more work than their counterparts without the struggle of addiction. As time goes on, these downfalls gradually get worse.

The good news for construction workers with addictions is that they’re not alone. Many treatment centers can help.

How Treatment Can Help

Addiction isn’t a death sentence, although it can feel that way. The truth is that treatment has been proven to help patients overcome addiction. Addiction is a mental health disease with physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.

A medically supervised detox keeps the patient stable and comfortable while the body goes through withdrawals. Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and individual therapy, is an effective addiction treatment.

Treatment centers are committed to evidence-based treatment for construction workers. Construction workers and substance abuse have a unique relationship. They understand the distinctive needs of a person in this dangerous profession. Most construction workers who come into a treatment center to get help feel that their jobs depend on their ability to use illicit substances.

They provide confidential services, as well as help with the Family Medical Leave Act process. Construction workers may be able to attend rehab while keeping their job. They also offer more than detox and evidence-based treatment. Services include a variety of alternative therapies, aftercare, outpatient treatment, 12-step meetings, and more.

We care about construction workers and know that the cycle of addiction can be broken with the right support. Whatever your recovery goals may be, we can help.