Addressing Addiction, Suicides on the Job

Health problems such as opioid addiction and suicides have become common issues on construction sites. Data from NIOSH and other organizations point to this fact.

National estimates suggest about 10 times as many fatal occupational illnesses – which these health problems fall under – occur compared with fatal occupational injuries.

Apply Knowledge to Health Issues

The costs, both direct and indirect, also tend to be overlooked.

And they can have a significant impact, so we certainly need to raise awareness about them. As safety professionals, we’re comfortable with the concepts of how to evaluate and measure all sorts of hazards as well as what’s needed to reduce exposures to them.

But what we need to get better at is being a little creative in how we apply what we know to these health issues that are much less familiar to us and less comfortable for us to deal with. Getting accurate reporting on these illnesses is also a challenge.

Recognize, Prevent, Get Involved

So why do health efforts lag behind? Well, for one, it’s easier to see an unguarded roof ledge than it is to visualize addictions or mental illnesses in the workforce.

But also the cause-and-effect link is much less obvious with these issues, and it’s not like OSHA health compliance inspections address addiction and suicide, at least not in the same way as safety problems.

Further, national reports are published each year about injury rates and their effect on safety, which gives employers a place to focus in that area. But with the absence of that for health problems, there’s an inadvertent message that gets sent, which is: Help is not a priority.

Obviously, we need to shift that kind of thinking.

We need to steer away from thinking about the common approach to these problems in the construction industry. One way to do so is to recognize and better comprehend these risk factors.

We also need to identify and use some of the helpful resources that are out there, such as those available through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Then we need to develop, facilitate, and incorporate them into our workplace health and safety cultures, prevention strategies, policies, and practices to help reduce the devastating exposure risks.

When it comes to opioid addiction, our primary goal should be to prevent those common injuries and illnesses we’re used to dealing with so that fewer workers need medical care involving pain treatment.

But we won’t solve the problem by focusing only on tackling the symptom, which is opioid addiction. Mental health plays into this as well for both opioid addiction and suicide. Many people experience mental illnesses, but how many seek help?

It’s important for site supervisors and safety pros to be aware of the signs and risk factors because early treatment has been found to be very effective. Supervisors and safety pros need to be trained on how to integrate addiction and suicide prevention into their company’s culture and safety, health and wellness programs.