Channel 2 Investigates

Study: Construction workers more likely to die of opioid overdoses than others

Construction sites and cranes are popping up all over metro Atlanta, but there is a serious problem facing construction workers.

A Massachusetts study found construction workers were six times more likely to die of opioid overdoses than the general population.

“Construction is very dangerous out here, so you got to be aware of your surroundings and everybody working around you,” said Benjamin Anderson, who has been a roofer for about 30 years.

Anderson is well-aware of the risks of falls and accidents on the job.  But he didn’t know that construction workers are also at higher risk of dying from opioid overdoses.

Georgia doesn’t track the number of fatal opioid overdoses by profession. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health looked at death reports and occupations between 2011 and 2015. It found that of the 4,300 people who died of opioid overdoses, more than 1,000 worked in construction.

“We found that in occupations and jobs where there’s a high report of injuries, that’s one area where we saw more opioid deaths, potentially as more people treating their pain with opioids,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Bharel said another potential risk factor is less paid sick time.

“You could say that potentially there was less time to heal, so they were coming back to work sooner,” Bharel said.

The construction industry knows the toll the opioid epidemic is taking on its workers.

“It was shocking but, yet …we can’t hide from it. We need to do better each and every day,” said Carl Heinlein, a senior safety consultant with the American Contractors Insurance Group.

Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Board also is aware of the opioid problem.

“Last year there were over 8 million prescriptions written for opioid class of drugs,” said the Board’s chairman Judge Frank McKay. He said that’s an indication opioids are over-prescribed in Georgia.

McKay said in the workers’ compensation program “…three out of four injured workers in Georgia who (are) pre-surgery, but who went to a treating physician, and complained of experiencing pain as a result of their on the job injury received a prescription for opioids.”


To combat the problem, the board is looking at which opioids are less addictive and working toward implementing a formula to ensure they’re being prescribed appropriately.

“If it were me, if I were getting medication too strong, I would let the doctor know that,” Anderson said.

Bharel said fighting the opioid epidemic involves working with employers to prevent injuries. She said it’s also important to make sure injured workers get appropriate treatment and to accommodate them when they return to the job.

Experts said it’s also important to help those who become addicted to opioids get treatment.

“Ask for help. Trust some of your friends. Companies now understand ... more than ever that they’d rather help than show you to the door,” Heinlein said.

The Massachusetts study found that for women, the highest risk of opioid overdose death was in health care support -- those who lift and carry patients.

After the Massachusetts report came out, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at millions of deaths and found the same trends with opioid overdoses.