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Unions Find Ways to Help Members Affected by Drug Addiction, Non-unions Throw Those Workers Away


Construction is a physically demanding occupation and many workers must persevere through pain on a regular basis. Which is why pain killers and overdoses are more common in construction than any other industry.

This is a statistic that should come as no surprise: Construction workers are more likely to die of overdose than workers in any other occupation, according to a new study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a very physically demanding occupation,” one New York City construction worker told us when we met him outside his job site in Manhattan. “You suffer a lot of abuse every single day. Pretty much every guy here is experiencing one kind of serious pain or another. Back. Neck. Knees. Gashes. Bruises. But we can’t let that pain stop us from working. So you see, it’s not hard to understand how someone might start relying on pain killers to get through the day.”

That worker, a non-union laborer, insisted on remaining anonymous because he didn’t want his identity to imply drug-use on himself or any of his colleagues.

16:1 — The Overdose Challenge

Nationally, construction workers have the highest on-the-job death toll of any industry. But the overdose statistic is even worse. In 2020, there were more than 162 overdose deaths per 100,000 construction workers. That same year, about 10 workers per 100,000 died in an in-the-job accident, which means it is about 16 times more likely that a construction worker will die of an overdose than from a work-related injury.

Unions Fight to Protect Members

While the exposure to painful injuries is universal in the construction industry, the way addiction is dealt with is radically different depending on whether the worker is in a union or not.

Recognizing the rise of opioid use, among other pain management drugs, unions now employ full-time addiction and mental health specialists. Several unions hold classes instructing members how to apply the opioid reversal medication Narcan in prep for the possibility that a fellow member may need it. Most union-run sites now carry Narcan in first aid kits.

Most unions also offer an anonymous help line where members can seek professional diagnosis and assistance without the stigma of being identified. One such Employee Assistance Program (EAP) used by some local unions is Care Plus Solutions. They provide members with an anonymous diagnosis of their condition and where it’s warranted, they will recommend a treatment program. The president of IBEW Local 94 in New Jersey, Chip Gerrity, said, “We couldn’t ask any more of their staff. They have been totally responsive to the needs of our members.”

Exposure to painful injuries is universal in the construction industry, but the way addiction is dealt with is radically different depending on whether the worker is in a union or not.

Experts to Help

Unions also employ workplace safety experts who are now placing a high priority on recognizing addiction and preventing overdoses among their members.

And there are the standard benefits that union members enjoy that many non-union workers don’t. “We have things like sick pay. And that helps a lot,” said one union member who sought and has received help for his opioid use. “They [the union] also do a lot to just see how you’re doing. They check in, encourage you to take care of yourself,” he said. “Overdoses are real, they’re more common than anyone wants, but [my union] is not sticking its head in the sand about it. They’re taking it head on. And I am thankful for that.”

Indeed, a recent story in the New York Times on this subject illustrated an on-site presentation to workers about addiction that was organized by a union. When speaking with the assembled crowd of hard-hat workers, Brian Crain, a compliance assistance specialist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said, “We ask you to do things based on getting home at the end of the day. Addiction works the same way.”

Non-Union: “Sweep the Problem Away”

There is no collected data on how non-union contractors are dealing with addiction and overdoses among their crews. But listening to some non-union workers talk about their experience, it is clear there is little to no help for them if they need it.

The laborer we spoke with in Manhattan said, “One reason it's is so high [the use of pain killers] is because we don’t get sick pay. You’re not here, you don’t get paid. So you need to be here, even if you have, like, a debilitating injury. And that’s not all. You have to hide that injury as much as you can. If the boss sees you struggling or slowing down the work, you’re out. They can replace for you like that.”

Another non-union worker at the same job site echoed that sentiment. “Look, man, to our bosses, we’re not really people. We’re just tools to get the work done. What do you do with a broken screwdriver? You throw it away. Grab another one. That’s how it is. So for us, it’s work hard, work fast. Don’t show pain. Or you get thrown away.” When asked how many of his co-workers use pain killers, he said, “A lot.” Did the non-union bosses try to help those who apparently had a problem with drugs? “No. If they find out, or even just suspect it, they just replace you, man. They just sweep the problem away.”

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