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Industry expert: More should be done to combat opioid epidemic

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Even though opioid abuse is in the national headlines now more than ever, the construction industry isn’t doing enough in response, an industry official contends.

“It’s a definite issue that somehow has to be addressed,” said Kevin Hildebrandt, director of risk management at Neenah-based Miron Construction Co. “And I hope that we’re at the height of it, but I doubt it.”

“There’s probably a bigger issue that people either don’t understand or want to admit nationwide.”

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In recent years, opioid abuse has become the subject of ever more attention from experts and elected officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed the powerful pain killers the cause of an epidemic. In October, President Donald Trump responded to the rising numbers of opioid-related addictions and deaths by declaring a public-health emergency.

Construction companies appear to be far more hesitant to talk about opioid addiction even though, according to a report from 2015, the scourge afflicts their industry at a higher rate than others.

Of the roughly 10 Wisconsin-based construction companies that were contacted for this story, Miron was the only one to agree to a phone interview. Emailed statements from two other contractors either simply acknowledged that opioid abuse is a concern or pointed out that drug abuse of any sort — not just of opioids —is not tolerated in its workplaces.

There has been relatively little research on opioid use in the construction industry. A report released in 2015 by the insurance company CNA Financial Corp. estimates 15.1 percent of construction workers have used drugs illicitly, including prescription medications.

The report adds that, according to CNA claim data, opioid use costs the construction industry more than other industries.

Another group, the Workers Compensation Research Institute, released similar findings this summer. The research looked specifically at workers’ compensation claims filed in Wisconsin and 25 other states. To be considered, a claim had to call for the use of at least one prescription for pain medication.

Between 2013 and 2015, 76 percent of the claims filed in Wisconsin fit the criteria; that was four percentage points above the figure for the median state. Moreover, 43 percent of the claims filed in Wisconsin paid for prescriptions calling for the use of two or more opioids. That was 2 percentage points above the figure for the median state.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services suggest that hospital trips resulting from opioid abuse have increased rapidly in the past decade or so.

According to the data, the number of opioid-related hospital discharges went from 178.6 for every 100,000 residents in 2015 to 469.3 for every 100,000 residents in 2016. That was a more than 150 percent increase.

Hildebrandt said no one age group seems more prone to abuse than others. Miron employees of all ages have failed drug tests.

“You’ve got young folks showing up positive, and you’ve got some nearing retirement … showing up positive,” he said.

Nathan Jurowski, general counsel of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee, said his group has no policy or initiative specifically dedicated to opioids. Instead, drug abuse of any sort is dealt with through the AGC of Greater Milwaukee’s Substance Abuse Testing & Assistance Program.

This program, commonly referred to as SATAP, is a product of collective-bargaining agreements between area contractors and unions. Jurowski said the program calls for drug tests to be performed in a few instances: before a person is hired or following a workplace accident. They can also be random.

The tests look for a number of substances, including alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and opiates.

Jurowski said the AGC of Greater Milwaukee, after running its own drug-testing program for about 15 years, recently joined forces with the AGC of Wisconsin to combat addiction. The new partnership helps ensure there will be “universal testing,” he said.

“This is something that the local trades have been very receptive of,” Jurowski said, adding the hope is to have higher rates of participation in the drug-testing efforts.

Hildebrandt said drug-testing programs, something that Miron and many other contractors take part in, should be viewed as the first step in the fight against opioids. What is generally lacking in the industry are policies or training initiatives to help people spot opioid abuse and, when they do discover it, respond properly.

“Those are all key components,” he said.

Hildebrandt, who started his career in the field, said he is willing to bet most supervisors have not been trained on how to identify opioid misuse.

“They just don’t want to address that issue,” Hildebrandt said.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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