Industry Fighting Back Against Job-Site Drug Use

Industry Fighting Back Against Job-Site Drug Use
Image credit: Shutterstock / Mike Focus

Drug use in the construction industry is a concern for all contractors. According to “Occupational Patterns in Unintentional and Undetermined Drug-Involved and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths” study released by the Centers for Disease Control last year, construction occupations had the highest proportional rate for drug-overdose deaths and heroin-related and prescription opioid-related overdose deaths.

According to Wes Wheeler, NECA's national director of safety, "I do not believe that drug use in the electrical industry is in any way less of a problem than it is for all of construction or employment in general.”

In fact, according to Wheeler, one of an electrical contractor's biggest concerns is workers who are taking medications that affect their alertness, especially if they are operating heavy equipment or machinery.

Marijuana is a specific substance of note. Wheeler believes, with recent moves toward the legalization of marijuana, workers may be more inclined to not see it as a major issue or one that can have a negative impact on the workforce.

"They think there are no effects on them in the workplace, when they could actually be putting themselves, coworkers, public citizens, and owner personnel at risk as a result of prescription misuse or illegal use of marijuana," he said.

A second major concern is the misuse and overuse of prescription opioid medications by workers.

"Opioids are meant to provide a temporary relief during recovery for pain that could be associated with an injury, either on the job or off the job from extracurricular activities," he said.

However, a trend often referred to as the "Opioid Crisis" has arisen, and for workers in construction, it can be very dangerous when they continue to take these medications after they are healed.

"While taking these types of medications, a worker's responses may be affected and could result in a more serious injury, affecting them or others," he said.

A third area of concern are stimulants such as caffeine-enhanced over-the-counter medications, including some allergy medications, which can affect a worker's mental alertness and possibly convince workers they are stronger than they actually are.

"A related concern is that these stimulants may also cause other medical issues, if there are any underlying health issues the worker may not be aware of," Wheeler said.

Furthermore, when workers mix over-the-counter medications with prescription medications, other very dangerous side effects can result.

In sum, according to Wheeler, the two major concerns in the workplace for contractors are marijuana and painkillers.

"The most widely used illegal drug would probably be marijuana, since it is available to all social classes in the U.S. and around the world, including electrical contractor personnel," he said. "Overuse and misuse of legal drugs, such as oxycodone, a pain killer, create dependency in the individual that manifests itself as a priority and need for that individual to obtain this medication at all costs."

NECA sponsors a Drug Free Workplace Program that includes drug screening according to all legal requirements, in conjunction with working with insurance carriers that provide resources that the employer can use to train and screen personnel.

"Being aware of an employer's rights to know what medications and the side effects of those medications are that a worker may be taking is another way that employers can help manage their exposures and risks," Wheeler said. "There are also many Employee Assistance Programs available through insurance and workers' compensation carriers that can educate management personnel on these issues. Working with our partners in the industry is key to keeping everyone safe."

Geary Higgins, NECA's vice president of labor relations, agrees with the importance of widespread cooperation and addressing the drug issue from multiple angles.

"NECA and the IBEW are working on the drug problem from two different approaches," he said. "First, almost all of our labor agreements contain language that requires drug testing of individuals, both pre-hire as well as on a random basis."

This combined approach is designed to screen out applicants whose drug activities may pose a danger and then test workers randomly once they are on the job for safety purposes.

If an employee tests positive for opioids, the preferred protocol is to ensure the person has a valid prescription for that drug and that the dosage of the prescription is determined to be safe. However, even in this case, Higgins believes it is probably not a good idea to allow that person to work at a job site. One reason is that, even at low doses, the opioids could impact the worker's ability to work safely.

"In addition, if someone needs to be on serious pain medication, he probably shouldn't be working anyway," he said.

The second approach relates to healthcare plans.

"I can't speak for all of them, but I do sit as a trustee on one of the largest ones that we have, which insures about 42,000 IBEW members, plus their families, which ends up being about 100,000 total," Higgins said.

This plan utilizes the services of a drug firm called Sav-Rx, which provides drug benefits. One of the first things that Sav-Rx does when it receives a request from anyone on the plan who has a prescription for opioids is to see if there are any other options for that person other than an opioid. If there is no alternative to the opioid, then Sav-Rx will ensure the prescribed level is appropriate for the person's health situation and that he or she is not on the drug any longer than is considered medically necessary. Finally, if someone ends up being prescribed a dosage of opioids that is considered at the high end, that case gets a second look and inspection from Sav-Rx to determine what the details are.

"In other words, we are trying to control not only the use, but the abuse, of these drugs, through these processes," Higgins said.

Electri International, the Foundation for Electrical Construction Inc., hosted a roundtable discussion about the opioid crisis at its January meeting. It touched on awareness, training, testing and support from the employers’ perspective. Electri will release a white paper soon that will be available on its website, electri.org.

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