Construction workers are particularly vulnerable to the opioid crisis, according to a new report by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. 

Nearly 1,000 Midwest construction workers died from opioid overdoses in 2015 at a cost of more than $5 billion to the region’s construction industry, the report found. The seven-state region analyzed in the report included Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. 

Among those states, Iowa had the fewest construction worker deaths in 2015 from opioid overdoses — 32 — at an estimated cost of $168 million in lost productivity, income, and pain and suffering costs. The estimated fatal overdose rate for Iowa construction workers is far higher — 42 per 100,000 workers — than the 5.8 deaths from overdoses per 100,000 people statewide. Regionally, the fatal overdose death rate is eight times higher than the average overdose death rate. 

On average, 115 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“What makes construction so vulnerable to this epidemic is the physical nature of the work,” said report author Jill Manzo. “Injury rates are 77 percent higher in construction than other occupations, and the financial incentive to get back to work before their bodies are healed is leading many down a path that can ultimately lead to abuse and even death.”

The report notes that according to the National Safety Council ’s 2017 Survey on Drug Use and Substance Abuse, 15 percent of construction workers struggle with substance abuse — nearly twice the national average. 

Other research has found that opioids account for about 20 percent of all total spending on prescription drugs in the construction industry, which is far higher than its share in other industries. And across the Midwest, between 60 and 80 percent of all workers' compensation claims have involved opioids.

To estimate the regional impact of the epidemic on Midwest construction workers, Manzo first analyzed state-level opioid death rates reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation alongside recent research from the Cleveland Plain Dealer that found construction workers are more than seven times more likely to die of an overdose. Ohio workers have been hardest hit by the epidemic by far, followed by Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. 

Among the report’s recommendations for the construction industry: 
  • Provide health insurance that covers substance abuse and mental health treatment.
  • Adopt new policies in health plans that limit dosages of opioid medications.
  • Encourage physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications for chronic wear-and-tear injuries.
  • Educate employees about responsible prescription opioid use.
  • Provide at least two weeks of paid sick leave.

Read the Report, “Addressing the Opioid Epidemic Among Midwest Construction Workers,” here.