Retrofitting and the Opioid Crisis: Why Job Sites Matter

The opioid crisis is taking a toll on construction workers—so much so that stakeholders in retrofit projects should consider its potential effects on safety.

Every retrofit project is a microcosm of broader trends. When Americans flock to cities to find living and working environments that are both authentic and sustainable, it creates opportunities for architects, contractors, city officials, building managers and others involved in retrofitting. But positive trends tend to be tempered by countervailing forces. In construction, the improving economy is translating into a robust pipeline of projects. The shortage of construction workers, though, means that contractors often struggle to find enough qualified people.

The opioid crisis adds another complication.

According to a 2017 survey by the National Safety Council, substance abuse is a problem for about 15 percent of U.S. construction workers—almost double the national average. Construction sites can be dangerous places. Because construction workers suffer more injuries, aches and pains, they are more likely to abuse opioids. A study released this past February points to the effects of this in the Midwest, in particular. According to researchers with the Chicago-based Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI), the opioid epidemic took the lives of nearly 1,000 construction workers in the region in 2015 alone.

The labor shortage could be a factor here. Contractors’ labor-reporting data from the past couple of years shows a clear trend toward employee overwork—hockey stick-shaped graphs for both overtime and double time. On the ground, that means more construction workers are part of projects that are behind schedule, over budget and understaffed. On a tense job site with flaring tempers, looming deadlines and exhausted crews, safety can suffer. Substance abuse can become more likely, as well.

How can those involved in retrofitting projects reduce these risks?

The MEPI researchers write that contractors could do more to encourage physical therapy and educate their workers about the dangers of opioid abuse. They also recommend putting workers into low-risk positions until they have stopped taking opioids. More broadly, all parties involved in retrofit projects could redouble their efforts to create safer and more relaxed job sites. This may mean taking a step back and reevaluating deadlines, particularly with respect to their potential effects on the health and wellbeing of crews. The good news is that by being more precise about planning and manpower distribution, companies stand to lower their labor costs, reduce safety-related liability risks and bolster work quality to boot.

Paying more attention to job-site stress will not end the opioid crisis in construction. However, it can and should be part of a multifaceted response. By focusing a bit more on how workers actually experience job sites, decision-makers can better safeguard the people whose hard work turns older buildings into the reinvigorated spaces admired and enjoyed by us all.

About the Author

Bruce Orr
Bruce Orr is chief data scientist at Atlanta-based ProNovos, which provides contractors with analytical software solutions and services geared toward reducing risk.

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