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Contractors wield many tools in fight against opioid abuse

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The Keystone Contractors Association is following a multifaceted approach to a challenge its top executive hears about often when it comes to the construction workforce: the negative effects of drug abuse, particularly of prescription opioids.

The Lemoyne-based association has inserted drug-free workplace clauses into labor contracts, provided educational resources for companies and taken other steps to tackle the problem, such as creation of a Construction Opioid Awareness Week in July.

The goal was to urge employers to focus on the issue amid the daily demands of running a construction company, said Jon O’Brien, executive director of Keystone Contractors.

“It might not be hitting your company, but it is hitting your community, and odds are employees know someone that is being affected by it,” he said.

He cited national studies showing that about 15 percent of construction workers have substance-abuse issues. But in places like Pittsburgh, where O’Brien is from, labor contracts with drug-free clauses have pushed the rate down, with around 2 percent or 3 percent of workers failing drug tests.

While they may work, O’Brien said drug-free provisions are not a catch-all item that can guarantee a drug-free industry. Rather, he said, they are “the foundation for a better day.”

Another approach taken by the contractors association is to provide employers with resources to educate workers about prescription painkillers.

“I’m hopeful that this conversation between the employer and employees can result in construction employees across the Commonwealth being ambassadors in our community and talking about this issue in churches, grocery stores, bars, high school football games ... everywhere,” O’Brien said. 

The association also encourages employers to distribute “Opioids-Warn Me” stickers to be placed on insurance cards. Health care professionals are supposed to alert patients if a pain medication contains an opioid and suggest an alternative when they see the sticker, O’Brien said. 

Other contractor organizations also are stepping up.

Lancaster County-based construction trade group ABC Keystone held a safety forum in May that addressed the medical side of the opioid crisis, said Kevin Keith, the group’s director of safety services.

Speakers explained why opioids are so addictive, and the concerns that arise when they are prescribed to employees, Keith said. They also noted that opioids are very effective in managing post-surgical pain.

“The challenge will be how to effectively prescribe and manage their use in order to minimize the addictive nature while still being able to manage pain,” Keith said.

ABC Keystone hosted another safety forum on Sept. 18 to address the legal aspects of handling policies related to prescription medications.

“Policies should include the need for employers to address the issue of prescription opioids and having employees that are prescribed the medication to be removed from safety-sensitive positions,” Keith said.

Keith said the opioids problem doesn’t have a “simple” solution. He said it will require discussions between insurers, employers, medical providers and state officials.

At Alexander Building Construction Co. in Harrisburg, leaders established a company-wide drug and alcohol policy and implemented a drug testing program on new projects, said company President Rick Seitz.

“The construction industry has been hit hard by the opioid crisis in part because of the physical nature of the business,” Seitz said. “Injuries are more common than in other industries and, as a result, pain medication is prescribed at a higher rate.”  

He said a third-party entity administers tests for opioids. Positive results are managed by corresponding with the employee’s doctor to ensure the doses taken are exactly what the doctor prescribed, he said.

Seitz said a first step to raising awareness about the epidemic is open discussion. Alexander holds frequent toolbox talks with its employees and subcontractors’ employees to discuss the latest statistics, intervention options, and techniques for helping co-workers deal with personal situations.

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