Why Substance Abuse is the Biggest Safety Issue in Construction

Construction Safety Week and Other National Initiatives Hope To Turn The Tide

Why Substance Abuse is the Biggest Safety Issue in Construction

Construction Safety Week and Other National Initiatives Hope To Turn The Tide

When we talk about construction safety, it’s easy to stick to what we know: proper PPE, harnesses and lifelines, trench shields, etc. Every safety director on a job site reminds construction crews daily about the potential hazards they face.

However, when it comes to talking about arguably the biggest safety problem on any project – one that takes the lives of 131 out of every 100,000 construction workers – there is often silence.

Because it’s hard to talk about substance abuse and addiction in the middle of a hard-driving construction site. When you’re on the job, the schedule is everything; the pressure to just “suck it up” and perform is intense. And in an industry where taking your eye off the ball for a second can cause a fatal accident, working while high puts everyone at risk.

Josh Vitale, a construction supervisor with Hoffman Construction Company, one of the founders of the GUTS project/Tough Enough To Talk, and Vice Chair of Construction Suicide Prevention Week shared some sobering statistics:

Construction Workers:

  • Are seven times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than workers in other industries
  • Have the highest proportion of heroin-related overdose deaths
  • Represent about 25% of fatal opioid overdoses among all workers

The National Survey on Drug Use, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, reports that construction workers deal with substance and alcohol disorders at nearly double the rate of any other industry. The national average for an “alcohol use disorder” is 7.5%; that rate skyrockets to 12% among construction workers, and they are 150% more likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder than other full-time workers.  

Construction workers are a statistically outsized group who struggle with substance use disorders, overdoses, and suicide.

Vitale shared harrowing stories of drug and alcohol-related accidents, injuries, and overdose deaths he’s dealt with personally on sites he has supervised.

“Construction requires workers to sacrifice their bodies for decades. It’s no wonder they’re self-medicating for chronic pain. It’s not uncommon to see multiple overdoses per project. It has become commonplace, and that fact is tragic.”

Construction Dive reported that at the micro level, the overdose rates were highest among roofers (177.4 per 100,000), drywall installers & tapers (175.1 per 100,000), and painters (162.1 per 100,000). The stressors that accompany construction work, seasonal employment, downtime between jobs, and the physical strain of performing the work are all contributing factors that lead to substance use and abuse.

And as part of a 2022 round table on mental health in construction, Cindy DePrater said, “Research shows when employers initiate and support treatment for mental health disorders and substance misuse, it is more effective in the long term than at the urging of family or friends. When we take care of ourselves, we feel safer. When we take care of ourselves, it also becomes easier to support others.”

Part of the issue with overdose and suicide deaths in construction is gender specific. Construction is still a heavily male industry, and the suicide rate for workers is four times higher than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That may also play a part in why it is so difficult for construction workers to seek out help.

As DePrater pointed out, and Vitale agrees, one solution is to bring the help directly to those who need it. That is how the Get Us There Safely (GUTS) Project was born.

Hoffman Construction Company graphic: White and yellow on a black background, with the words “Depression is everywhere. So is help.” and the Tough Enough To Talk/GUTS logo.
Hoffman Construction Company is centering mental health and substance use issues
with the GUTS initiative.

GUTS’ goal is to provide a decompression space on site for construction workers. They’ve placed 10 trailers on jobsites throughout the U.S., and one in Israel, that contain private rooms for telehealth & teletherapy appointments, a lounge area to allow for a quiet moment, and some entertainment like foosball tables and dart boards. Vitale characterizes a GUTS trailer as having all the characteristics of a bar, without any of the damaging substances.

GUTS and Tough Enough To Talk aim to provide anyone in need a space to de-stress, breathe, and maybe to talk before making an unfortunate choice. And as anyone on a job site knows, getting a construction worker to open up about anything is a very tall order. That’s why Construction Safety Week (CSW) began to feature mental health and substance abuse materials in their safety talks in 2020 and have continued to center mental health and physical health concerns in this year’s theme – Value Every Voice.

Just like knowing the best practices to avoid slips, trips, and falls, your mental health and wellbeing are crucial to your ability to perform at your peak and stay safe. So let’s value every voice by listening, even when it’s tough to talk about it.

Construction Safety Week is May 6-10, 2024. GPRS offers complimentary CSW talks on job sites throughout the nation. Schedule yours today.