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Article / Opioids


Construction sites are dangerous places; heavy equipment, electric tools, scaffolds and a lot of people working in close quarters.  If just one of those workers is not paying attention, or is otherwise impaired on the job, disaster can strike.

While illegal drug use gets much attention and press coverage, it is estimated that two million Americans with a drug problem are addicted to, or dependent on, prescription opiates.  In other words, their drug of choice is not only legal it’s being given to them under a doctor’s care.

In the 1990s, OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet became popular prescriptions for the treatment of chronic pain.  Many experts blame aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies, coupled with doctors over-prescribing these addictive drugs, for the alarming rise in prescription abuse we are seeing today.

Some opiates, like those prescribed by a doctor, are legal.  
Others, like heroin, are not.
Whether legal or outlawed they all work the same: blocking pain signals to the brain and giving off a side effect usually described as “warm and fuzzy” with a general sense of wellbeing.  

But other, negative side effects include nausea, sedation, vomiting and dizziness. 

Because the legal drugs work on the same part of the brain as the illicit ones, there is a well-documented risk of people starting with prescription pills, but eventually moving on to more hardcore and dangerous drugs.

“It starts with the prescription painkillers and that’s what we need to educate people on,” Robert Riley, founder of a non-profit that helps heroin addicts, said.  Riley recently took part in a forum for construction professionals.  

Opioids: A Building Epidemic discussed openly and frankly the extent of the problem and the special danger for those who work in construction.

Don Willey, a business manager with Laborers Local 110, lost his son last year after a long struggle with heroin.  Willey said when friends would ask how his kids are, he would bluntly tell them that his son is a heroin addict.  

“Matt didn’t like the honesty, but if I didn’t admit the addiction then how could I expect him to?  It was only right to make people aware,” Willey said at the opioids forum.

Missouri is among a handful of states without a drug monitoring program.  Such programs seek to curb “doctor shopping” by establishing a statewide database of users.

A pharmacy would be able to check the database to see if a customer purchasing opioids has been getting similar prescriptions filled at other pharmacies. 

The database would alert doctors and pharmacists to a potential addiction problem.

Tom Finan, executive director of Construction Forum STL, helped organize the opioid forum and credits the Carpenters’ training director, Dr. John Gaal, with recognizing the significant implications for the construction industry and suggesting the forum idea.

“Construction is a physical industry so you get a lot of people with injuries, plus it’s a very stressful industry. I think it’s the stress, the physicality and the over-prescription of opioids,” Finan said.

One recent survey revealed that the spending on opioids among construction workers is five to 10 percent higher than other industries - supporting the belief that we are at higher risk and are having a much bigger struggle with this epidemic than the average American. 

Finan, who has a daughter in opioid addiction recovery,  is eager to continue discussions in the future regarding painkillers and construction workers.

“At the end of the program we asked for a show of hands of people touched by opioid addiction.  I think there were only one or two people in the audience who did not raise their hand.”