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State construction group confronts opioid epidemic

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As construction workers hit job sites around Pennsylvania this week, many are being greeted with safety talks and insurance card stickers warning them of the risks associated with opioid abuse.

The safety talks and stickers are part of a statewide initiative led by the Keystone Contractors Association, which represents construction companies across Pennsylvania, including many in Central Pennsylvania.

Dubbed Construction Opioid Awareness Week in Pennsylvania, the goal of the campaign is to raise more awareness in an industry that has higher substance abuse problems than any other, said Jon O'Brien, the association's executive director. Nationally around 15 percent of construction workers have substance addiction issues compared with about 9 percent of workers in other industries.

"We wanted to drive home that employers need to focus on it," he said.

O'Brien and executives in the industry, like Greg Quandel of Performance Construction Services, part of Harrisburg-based Quandel Enterprises, said they understand why opioids are such a problem in the construction industry.

It's physically demanding work and the average construction worker in Pennsylvania is 46 years old. Bodies don't bounce back as quickly from injuries and most pain medications prescribed contain opioids.

"Guys take it thinking, 'This will help me get through the day, ease the pain,'" Quandel said. "The next thing you know they are addicted."

Because the construction industry also faces a shortage of skilled workers, opioid talks are especially important for young apprentices to hear, said O'Brien, who has heard stories from owners over the last two years about up-and-coming apprentices who died of overdoses.

Opioid-related overdose deaths claimed the lives of 514 people in Central Pennsylvania last year, up from 391 in 2016, according to figures on Overdose Free PA, a website that tracks overdose deaths submitted by county coroner's offices. That figure does not include Lebanon County.

The association worked with the National Safety Council to get the awareness week resolution passed in Pennsylvania this year. O'Brien hopes to see it become an annual summer campaign in the commonwealth.

So does Quandel, who said his company plans to implement opioid talks on a quarterly basis as part of regular safety meetings, also known as toolbox talks.

Quandel, one of the midstate's largest general contractors, also is adopting the "Opioids: Warn me" stickers for employees as a way to prompt more dialogue between doctors and patients about medications being prescribed. The hope is that more alternative medications might be suggested to limit opioid addictions, which can save companies money on health care costs and lost productivity.

"It's important for all companies, not just the large companies," Quandel said. "If we can curb it, we can all save."

Another goal of the awareness campaign is to get more companies to partner with local police on drug take-back programs to collect unused prescription medications.

In addition, the state association is pushing to see more drug-free programs added to collectively bargained construction agreements.  The long-term goal, O'Brien said, is to create a drug-free culture for employers.

Proponents say drug-free programs can save employers money by preventing accidents caused by impaired workers. Lower insurance premiums from a safer workplace can improve a contractor's reputation and increase its chances of getting more work.

A growing number of owners, especially health care and energy companies with large construction projects, already are looking to hire general contractors with drug-free programs, O'Brien said.

But there can be short-term challenges. Drug abuse violations can lead to employees being suspended to seek treatment or possibly terminated for ongoing violations. For an employer, bringing in new workers and getting them up to speed can be costly and slow down a project.

"Some areas in our geography, like Altoona and Hazleton, are being hit really hard with this epidemic," O'Brien said. "So hopefully increasing the education on the topic and improving our labor contracts can help. It's a long process that won't happen overnight, but we're committed to helping our workforce."

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin and Cumberland counties. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

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