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Construction industry confronts drug addiction among ranks

Philip Marcello
Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts construction companies and labor unions held work stoppages at project sites throughout the state this week as their industry attempted to confront a high rate of fatal opioid overdoses among its ranks.

Robert Petrucelli, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts, a trade group that organized brief talks about opioids at about 50 work sites from Boston to Springfield, said the local industry wasn’t aware of the extent of the epidemic until recent studies revealed sobering statistics.

Construction workers accounted for roughly 25% of all fatal opioid overdoses among Massachusetts workers from 2011 to 2015, a state Department of Public Health report found last year. They’re also six times more likely to fatally overdose on opioids than other workers, according to the report.

Total opioid-related deaths, meanwhile, continue to decline in Massachusetts, falling about 4% from 2016 to 2018, according to a state Department of Public Health report from last month.

Construction workers may be particularly prone to abusing prescription painkillers — which often leads to illegal drug use — because of the physical demands of their jobs and the fact that many of them are getting older.

“It was eye popping. It was clear we had to do something,” Petrucelli said before addressing some 200 workers at a hotel under construction in Boston’s booming Seaport district Wednesday morning. “No one talks about this, but it permeates our industry.”

The trade group recently worked with Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction to develop guidelines for combating opioids in the workplace.

The guidelines discuss how to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug addiction, how to respond to an overdose and draw attention to local treatment resources.

Labor unions have also started their own campaign.

The New England Carpenters Benefit Funds, which administers health and other benefit plans for union members, recently began providing coverage for up to 90 days of substance-abuse treatment in a residential facility, according to Paul Greely, the organization’s executive director.

The attempt has so far placed 25 workers in treatment, 18 of whom have completed their programs, he said.

And the Massachusetts Laborers’ Benefit Funds started a program in October to connect workers with substance-abuse treatment and other addiction services.

Marc Lyle, one of three new recovery specialists at the union, says the program has helped more than 130 members and their families to date.

It’s imperative for local industries hit hard by the opioid epidemic to fight it head on, as the construction industry is doing, said Michael Botticelli, executive director of the Grayken Center.

Otherwise, the state’s economic fortunes will suffer more, he said, citing a report last year from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that suggested the opioid epidemic cost the state more than $15 billion in lost productivity, health-care costs and other expenses in 2017 alone.

The construction industry’s struggles with addiction aren’t unique to Massachusetts, either. In Ohio, construction workers were seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose between 2010 and 2016, an analysis by the Cleveland Plain Dealer found in 2017.

“We have to take care of each other,” said Lyle, the laborers’ union recovery specialist, who has been sober for nearly a decade after struggling for years with addiction to prescription painkillers and later heroin. “This is tearing our industry apart.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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