Whether it’s that new home down the street or gigantic sports arena next to the freeway, most people drive by construction sites every day, Some of us may even glance at the construction workers and think “Now that’s not a bad job! Decent pay, and you get to work outdoors and aren’t in front of a computer all day.”
What isn’t visible, though, are the stress and chronic physical and/or emotional pain that construction workers experience from working long hours, having to work while injured and worrying about job security. While being a construction worker does pay well, the dangers, anxieties and the possibility of witnessing a co-worker suffer a serious accident are always in the back of a worker’s mind.
Construction site supervisors are under even more stress than their crew. There are timelines to meet, materials to be ordered intact and in time for deadlines, and the possibility of bad weather delaying the project.
It should be no surprise that construction workers have one of the highest rates of substance abuse and mental health issues compared to other professions, according to NYU’s College of Global Public Health Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research (CDUHR). Its research found that construction workers/supervisors are more likely to abuse prescription pain pills, cocaine, alcohol and marijuana than police officers, firefighters and other high-stress occupations.
Drug Abuse and Mental Illness in the Construction Industry: What the Statistics Reveal
According to one of the authors of the CDUHR study, Dr. Danielle Ompad, “Since construction workers are at a significant risk for substance abuse, this makes them even more vulnerable to being injured on the job. In addition, abusing hard drugs like cocaine or heroin further raises the risk of overdose.”
Research into substance abuse and mental distress among construction workers offers the following startling statistics:
- Construction workers use prescription pain pills more than other workers in any profession.
- Cocaine appears to be the drug of choice among construction workers, with about two out of every 100 construction workers reporting use of cocaine. (This is compared to less than one percent in other professions.)
- Construction workers and individuals employed in the service sector are more likely to abuse marijuana than all other workers in different occupations (12.4 percent vs. 7.5 percent).
- Some research indicates that drug overdose deaths among construction workers are seven times higher than the national average (CDUHR).
- Over 40 percent of construction workers ages 50+ report suffering chronic back pain requiring frequent use of OTC or prescription pain pills.
- Injured construction workers are 45 percent more likely to experience major depression than non-injured construction workers; and, because the construction industry is a male-dominated industry that perpetuates a “strong” man, macho stereotype, many workers dealing with mental illness or addiction are reluctant to ask for help.
- Workers in the construction and coal mining industries have the highest rates of heavy alcohol use, when asked if they drank alcohol to relieve pain or depression in the past month
Why are Construction Workers—and Many Men—Reluctant to Get Help for Mental Illness and Addiction?
Today there is generally widespread acceptance of non-traditional gender roles in society at large. The construction industry is a bit of an exception to this rule and remains largely male-dominated. (Women in the industry largely occupy administrative roles.)
Within this male-dominated profession, certain stereotypes about what it means to be a man and masculine are still quite prevalent. Emotions and attitudes considered “masculine,” for example: self-confidence (swagger), aggressiveness (to a degree), courage in the face of extreme dangers and recklessness.
Boys are still taught from an early age to always present a persona of being emotionally stoic and physical indestructible. (“Boys aren’t supposed to cry!” and “you have to take it like a man” are common refrains.) Additionally, some research indicates that many male construction workers may have been brought up in households where traditional male and female roles were strictly upheld.
Another obstacle preventing construction workers from getting help for substance abuse or depression involves a pervasive belief that “treatment won’t help” or that treatment is a waste of “time and money.” Yet telling oneself and others that addiction or mental health treatment “isn’t for me” may be a way to avoid struggling with the internalized assumptions that one holds about masculinity.
Alcohol Abuse Among Construction Workers
To be hired by a construction company, a person almost always has to pass a drug test. Urine samples taken from potential employees are routinely tested for cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids and marijuana. Additionally, random drug tests are frequently given to construction workers whether they have been employed for one year or ten years.
Although alcohol can remain detectable in urine for up to 72 hours, construction employers generally won’t fire a worker who has alcohol detected in their urine test. This may be one reason that alcohol abuse is more prevalent among construction workers than drug use. However, for every construction worker who routinely drinks on the job because they think they can handle it, there are dozens of new reports published daily about serious construction site accidents caused by an intoxicated worker.
If a construction worker is found to be intoxicated after an injury incident, they could be fired, sued or even charged with a crime, depending on the type and severity of the accident. Reasons why construction workers drink before and/or during their shift usually include the same reasons why non-construction workers abuse alcohol: long-term stress, depression and unresolved emotional conflicts arising from current or childhood trauma.
Pain Pill Use Among Construction Workers
Prescription pain relievers such as Percocet, Percodan and Vicodin alleviate moderate to severe pain caused by musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. It is rare that a construction worker does not suffer from occasional back, shoulder and knee pain. Fortunately, pain due to overexertion and strain is temporary and can be relieved with ibuprofen or Tylenol. However, many construction site accidents inflict serious injuries involving burns, broken bones and dislocations.
Addiction to a prescription opioid like Vicodin can happen within several weeks of starting the drug. As tolerance builds to an opioid, the user finds out they must take more of the drug to get the pain relief they once enjoyed. And, as the body gets addicted to pain pills, so does the brain.
Where Can Construction Workers Get Help for Addiction and Mental Health Problems?
Unless they are hired as a temporary employee, most full-time construction workers have health insurance that fully or partially covers treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. Local and state labor unions can provide resources such as contact information for substance addiction treatment centers, therapists and psychologists who work predominantly with construction industry workers.
If you aren’t sure where to go for help with an addiction, alcoholism and/or mental illness, FHE Health may be able to help. Our caring, competent team offers compassionate, evidence-based treatment that addresses a person’s unique needs. Step into a healthier, happier future, by calling FHE today.