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by The Keystone Contractor

By Jon O’Brien, Executive Director

This year’s Construction Opioid Awareness Week is July 24 – 28.

Have you ever felt like you’ve gone back in time? Or that someone hit the rewind button on you? That’s how I feel when I look at the opioid issue and its impact on the construction industry. 

In 2016, the Keystone Contractors Association conducted a needs assessment of Pennsylvania’s construction industry. Concerning our construction labor workforce, one glaring topic needed attention, and that’s education on opioids/pain medication. Construction is tough on the body; no one denies that statement. When the aches, pains, and injuries come, many turn to pills so that they could keep working. Six years ago, we heard story after story on how opioid addiction was wreaking havoc on our industry and our communities.

As a result of our findings, we knew we had to do something. Sure, there were ads from the government and healthcare systems to warn against opioid abuse, but I did not find channels that spoke directly to construction workers. As a result, in the summer of 2017, the KCA worked with industry allies in our state to create Construction Opioids Awareness Week. This recognition week is the last full week of July–when we arm construction employers with lots of resources to discuss pain medication use/abuse with their employees. It’s hard to gauge the success of a movement like this, but one indicator that I believe is crucial for success is getting the construction industry talking about the issue. And since 2017, the industry has been talking – employees were talking to employers.

But during this journey, we encountered a daunting challenge: COVID-19. What a challenge to addiction/recovery! Pennsylvania’s construction workforce went from building Pennsylvania to being nonessential. For a month and a half during the spring of 2020, the construction industry was shut down, and only health care and a few other projects continued. Then on May 1, 2020, Pennsylvania’s construction industry reopened, while most businesses and schools remained closed or operating remotely.

2020 put a lot of stress on the construction workforce in our state. They went from being unimportant to instances where workers were the lone household members to go into the COVID-19 elements and return home not sure how to feel or interact with their family. Or, for the workers who lived alone, it was worse. They went from being nonessential, sitting at home all alone, to returning to work but not having normal human contact after work at such places as church, restaurants, etc.

Along with an increase in stress levels from the pandemic, the construction industry also experienced an increase in addiction and suicide rates. The sad part is that we were heading in the right direction entering 2020, but we’ve been digging out of this pit ever since. However, I think our industry is more determined than ever to help by returning to the 2017 playbook – communication is key to building a construction industry in Pennsylvania where people feel comfortable enough to seek help.

For this year’s Construction Opioid Awareness Week, we are encouraging construction companies to re-engage on the topic and work to get valuable resources to the workforce. At the same time, we want to make sure our workforce knows they are respected and appreciated while knowing it’s OK to ask for help. The KCA will do its part and supply construction employers with educational resources so that they can participate in the week.

We hope Pennsylvania’s construction industry will join us for a trip back in time when we were helping the lives of our fellow construction professionals. Hopefully, we can create an environment where those needing help know that we are there to assist them. Remember: Teamwork Improves Safety & Life!

For more information on the 2023 Construction Opioids Awareness Week, as well as toolbox talks and other valuable resources, please visit: https://keystonecontractors.com/Opioid-Awareness/.

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