Construction Labor Shortage May Be Contributing to Opioid Abuse

Overwork from a tight labor market can lead to exhausted workers and more dangerous jobsites - conditions that could exacerbate opioid abuse

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Overwork caused by the labor shortage could be a factor in the problem of opioid abuse among construction workers, writes Bruce Orr, founder of construction data analytics firm ProNovos, in a new column for Construction Business Owner magazine. 

"When you dive into the labor reporting data at a typical construction company these days, what often emerges is a clear trend toward employee overwork," Orr writes. "Financially, of course, all of that overtime and double time is a serious concern, but overwork is problematic in other ways as well. When projects are behind schedule and over budget, with crews working to near exhaustion, you can actually feel the tension in the air. That kind of environment is conducive to substance abuse."

In the March 15 column ("How You Can Fight Opioid Abuse in Construction"), Orr cites new research illustrating the sorrowful effects of the crisis on construction workers in the Midwest. According to researchers with the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI), the opioid epidemic took the lives of nearly 1,000 construction workers in the region in 2015. The researchers estimate that it also cost the region's economy some $5 billion.

"As many foremen will tell you, a vicious circle is in play here," Orr writes. "Higher injury rates in construction can translate into more workers taking opioids to deal with their aches and pains. The resulting erosion of safety then raises the risk of more injuries, and an ever-worsening problem."

As Orr notes in the column, the MEPI researchers offer suggestions for how construction companies can better cope with this trend. In addition to spelling out potential changes to health insurance plans and policies for workers, they recommend steps such as encouraging physical therapy; educating employees about the risks of opioid abuse; helping employees who test positive for drug use (rather than immediately firing them), and putting workers into low-risk positions until they're off of opioids.

But as contractors seek solutions for the problem of substance abuse among workers, Orr argues, they should also consider the potential contributing role of overwork born of the labor shortage and, if necessary, make some changes. "To improve the jobsite climate, companies could consider taking a step back and estimating jobs a bit differently," he writes. "The goal should be to meet deadlines that, while still satisfactory for customers, are more manageable for crews. By being more sensitive to the human costs of excessive stress, companies can avoid putting too much strain on their most important resource—their people."

As a specialist in construction data analytics, Orr describes seeing firsthand how more precise planning and manpower distribution can help contractors create safer and more relaxed work environments. "That can play a significant role in decreasing substance abuse in construction," he writes.

Revisiting hard-driving company cultures could also help, he adds. "Operating in 'beast mode' is a fact of life in productivity-driven sectors such as construction or tech," Orr writes. "However, when workers feel respected—when they know they are valued members of a competent and positive team—it is possible to turn the stress of a tough project into 'eustress,' the satisfying sense of going above and beyond to get the job done. By tackling this problem on multiple fronts—including the work environment—we stand a good chance of making progress that will preserve families and save lives."

The full column is available at