Coronavirus Pandemic Accelerates Construction’s Opioid Addiction Problem

The COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption to daily life hit those with substance-use disorder hard, with deaths by opioid and methamphetamine overdoses increasing 38% and 35%. Construction is among three industries with the most abuse of the drugs

Getty Images 511199578
@vchal iStock/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has been blocking out much of construction’s meager public-health bandwidth while its opioid-addition problem has been accelerating.

“If you do simple math, you’re 15 times more likely to die in construction from opioids than all the other hazards from a job site combined,” Bryan Northrop, executive vice president of Skanska USA told “That one statistic should really open everyone’s eyes, but you never see it printed anywhere.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period with the one ended May 2020. The CDC counted synthetic opioids (primarily illicit fentanyl) as the primary driver, increasing 38.4% compared to the previous 12 months.

  • 37 of 38 U.S. jurisdictions that gather synthetic opioid data reported increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids
  • 18 of these jurisdictions reported increases greater than 50%
  • 10 western states reported over a 98% increase in deaths that involved synthetic opioids

Rising opioid overdoses are particularly significant to the construction industry because it leads other industries in opioid use and abuse. The high rate of painful musculoskeletal injury in very physical construction work (77% higher than the national average) leads to very common treatment with prescription opioids. Financial pressure on laborers to return to the jobsite before their injuries are fully healed increases the incidence of reinjury. Opioids are again prescribed, which puts workers at high risk of addiction. When those who fall to addiction can no longer convince doctors to prescribe opioids, they can save a lot of money by switching to street drugs such as fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroine.   

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2011 to 2016 measured 43% of drug overdose deaths at work occurring in only three industries – Transportation & Warehousing, Construction, and Healthcare & Social Assistance.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

Overdose deaths involving cocaine also increased by 26.5%. These deaths are likely linked to co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased by 34.8%. More people now die in psychostimulant overdoses than in cocaine overdoses.

Again, incidence of abuse of these drugs in construction has proven excessive. In a study by Quest Diagnostics of drug-screening samples from 2015 to 2017, positives for methamphetamine were highest in the construction sector in each year, and increased 15% increase during that period. Construction also ranked highest among industries for cocaine positivity – more than 33% higher the general U.S. workforce.

Acknowledging that construction places their employees at much greater risk of the injury-to-addiction path, the over-prescription of opioids and under pressure from labor shortages, some contractors are reconsidering policies that dictate firing any worker who tests positive for drugs.

Compassion Behavioral Health, treatment specialists for addiction and mental health disorders, recommends some ways to fight opioid abuse in construction:

  • Educate workers on addiction. Addiction has a stigma attached to it, and it can result in problems being swept under the rug. Construction workers need to understand addiction and not be afraid to talk about it.
  • Conduct opioid safety training. Construction companies can benefit from opioid safety training. Some programs are also aimed at getting Narcan on all job sites. Narcan can stop a fatal overdose while waiting for first responders to arrive.
  • Promote alternative pain management. Even though opioids provide quick relief, they are only a temporary fix. Construction companies should be more open to promoting alternative pain management therapies, such as yoga and acupuncture.
  • Increase safety training. There is no substitute for safety training. Construction companies should continue offering safety training so that workers follow the safest and most updated practices.

If you our somebody you knows wants to deal with an addiction problem, call this confidential national hotline to find out about treatment options near you (800) 662-HELP (4357) or go online at

From the CDC:

Not all overdoses have to end in death. Everyone has a role to play.