Construction worksites, by nature, are generally hectic, busy, and more slimly staffed due to work-saving technology and the raw reality of today’s economy—which favors lean staffing.
When all employees working at a construction jobsite are at the top of their game, it is poetry in motion … a beautiful and impressive scene to behold. However, if 17.4 percent of construction workers are impaired by drug use (a statistic from the 2010–2011 national survey data, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA), the jobsite choreography can turn dangerous.
HOW ADDICTION BEGINS
The behavior of the stumbling, slurry drunk or the slow-mo, unfocused marijuana stoner is easy to spot. What’s more challenging to catch is impairment from abuse of prescription pain medication and heroin.
Many will recoil at the association of a prescription drug like OxyContin or an illegal street drug like heroin, but here’s the 4-1-1: they are both opioids and are like kissing-cousins. Think of a nest of squirrels ravaging your home. To the hired exterminator, squirrels are no different from rats—same destruction and same methods to get rid of them—squirrels are simply rats with good PR.
Yet, the sad reality is that the drug prescribed to a construction worker to relieve back pain or pain from an injury can be highly addictive. When the physician refuses to refill the prescription after a couple times, the worker may still want the pills—new addictions need to be fed. Instead of going to a pharmacy, they may go to a friend of a friend to illegally purchase the pills that were once legally prescribed to them. In time, it becomes clear that acquiring illegal prescription drugs is far more expensive than heroin, which produces the same results.
THE TELLTALE SIGNS
According to the SAMHSA research, the construction trades rank the highest of all professions for heroin use, with 3.25 standard deviations from the average rate of heroin abuse/dependence. The industry far outstrips the second highest ranked entertainers, performers, and professional sports industry segment for heroin use/addiction.
The challenge with the opiate-impaired is that they may be cycling through two distinct stages while at work: either they are under the influence or they are in withdrawal.
While impaired, the employee may seem fine; looking closer can reveal problems with concentration, effort, energy levels, mood swings, and just a general lethargy. Those at high levels of opiate use may show signs of narcosis, or “being on the nod,” as they fade into a state where they look “asleep on their feet.” These may be employees who doze in the bathroom stall, oversleep in their cars while on breaks or lunches, as the central nervous system depressant they have over-consumed takes its toll. Their pupils are like pin dots, their eyelids are at half-mast, their pulse rates are quite low, and they are not fully functioning.
To be clear, an employee under a doctor’s care, taking a medicinal dose of a prescribed opiate tablet who is following the prescription bottle’s directions is not the problem. That person can usually function just fine. The one who overmedicates with opiates or uses heroin is the problem.
At the other stage of addiction is the worker who is in some state of opiate withdrawal. This is a completely different person: irritable, edgy, restless, anxious, sweating, shaky, achy, clammy, fighting nausea, diarrhea, an upset stomach, watery eyes, or a non-stop runny nose. What might be taken for a seasonal allergy, bad cold, or touch of flu could actually be an opiate user having a bad day.
Probably, the worst situation is being addicted to injected heroin. An individual might have to inject the drug every 4 to 6 hours, every day, to avoid incredibly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. The “going on-coming off” cycle is brutal business. As one longtime heroin user puts it, “It’s hard to divorce The Horse.”
RESPONDING TO ADDICTION
Preferably, an addict in a construction crew would speak up and say, “I’m in trouble and I need help,” before the positive random urine test; before the incident or accident; before the paramedics have to respond and give the employee a lifesaving dose of Narcan (Naloxone) to counteract the heart and lung-stopping consequences of the last fix.
Employers tend to be supportive and helpful if asked for help with an addiction, as opposed to an employee getting caught selling drugs at work or stealing from the warehouse, petty cash fund, or coworkers in order to fund an addiction.
Unfortunately, most opiate-addicted employees are too afraid, stubborn, or prideful to reach out for help and get treatment. Combined with their sense of denial, distorted thinking, minimizing, rationalizing, and blaming behavior, it can lead them to discipline, termination, or death.
Supervisors and coworkers need to confront an opiate-impaired fellow employee, or tell an owner, manager, or HR about their suspicions. Considering the very real danger an impaired person poses to themselves and the risks they expose others to through their behavior, calling them out is not about being a snitch; it’s about saving lives. ■
About the Author: Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached through www.jeffwinke.weebly.com.
Modern Contractor Solutions, September 2015
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