BAC Journal > Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

2017 Issue 4


Compared to workers from any other profession, construction workers are among the most at risk for suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. Construction workers rank second in alcoholism and third in addiction to illegal street drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. In addition, they also rank among the “Top 10” at highest risk for clinical depression. 

With substance abuse and mental health risk factors like these, it is no wonder that union construction workers are particularly susceptible to the worst opioid epidemic in our nation’s history. Accidental overdose deaths from opioids have skyrocketed, taking the lives of members in their prime. Younger members may begin via recreational use of prescription pain pills. They may find themselves quickly hooked, and then typically transition to more readily available and cheaper heroin. Older members struggling with chronic pain and trying to continue working may follow a similar path of switching from prescription opioids to heroin. 

Workers may struggle to talk about their addiction, much less seek professional help. They may worry about how to feed their family while they are in treatment; who will look after their kids while they’re away; how to afford treatment; and which treatment options are best.  Many will no longer have health insurance coverage because their addiction has caused them to miss too much time from work. Finally, workers often worry about being blacklisted and no longer having a job to return to after treatment. 

How have so many workers in the construction industry gotten hooked on opioids? Why are so many opioid addicts suffering accidental overdose deaths?  What can the construction industry do to foster prevention and encourage treatment? These questions are best answered by more fully understanding how the current opioid epidemic emerged.


The Opioid Epidemic Tsunami

The current opioid epidemic swept the nation in three great waves. Since 2000, the opioid epidemic has killed more than 310,000 Americans. Opioid accidental overdose is now the leading cause of death for adults under age 50!

The first wave began in the 1990’s, with a sudden, sharp spike in the over-prescribing of painkillers to treat acute and chronic pain. The development of Oxycontin, an unusually powerful pain medication misleadingly touted by the pharmaceutical industry as “completely safe,” but later found to be dangerously addictive, was a chief contributor. Well-intentioned but unknowing doctors were encouraged to more fully treat their patients’ pain by prescribing higher dosages of drugs for longer periods of time. At the same time, “pill mill” clinics, in which patients are unethically overprescribed pain pills for huge cash profits, began popping up everywhere. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) efforts to close pill mill clinics floundered as multiple new clinics were opened for every clinic closed.  

Sadly, the rate of accidental opioid overdose deaths rapidly increased hand-in-hand with overprescribing pain pills.

By the early 2000’s, physicians were becoming more aware that “Big Pharma” had lied about the safety of powerful narcotics such as Oxycontin.  Aware of the dangers, physicians began to cut back on prescribing Oxycontin and other addictive pain medications. Heartbreakingly, by the early 2000’s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were already hooked on prescription pain pills, setting the stage for the third wave.

It occurred when vast numbers of adults began seeking heroin on the streets as a substitute for prescription pain pills. Statistics showed that seven out of 10 people hooked on heroin had switched from prescription pain pills. Whereas in decades past, heroin use was much stigmatized, it now became commonplace.

The devastating third wave of opioid addiction hit in 2010, when illegal drug manufacturers in Mexico and China began lacing synthetic heroin with Fentanyl to offer the ultimate potent heroin. Fentanyl, a powerful and potentially deadly narcotic, was originally developed as an anesthesia for surgery and for the excruciating pain of cancer patients in hospice. However, by 2010 and beyond, synthetic Fentanyl-laced heroin was being widely distributed on the streets to heighten an addict’s high. Unsuspecting heroin addicts began dying in droves as they accidentally overdosed on Fentanyl-laced heroin. Whereas in the past, it might take several hours for someone to die of accidental overdose, addicts now were dying within minutes. This narrowed window of time from overdose to death meant many addicts had already died before the ambulance could arrive. By 2013, more than 10,000 Americans had died sudden, tragic, accidental overdose deaths attributed to Fentanyl-laced heroin.


MAP Helps Impaired Workers

The BAC Member Assistance Program (MAP) offers free, professional intervention and assistance by licensed mental health professionals to our Union members and their families. If you are or a worker you know is struggling with opioid addition, anxiety or depression, and need help, please call MAP’s licensed mental health professionals for help. MAP is generally open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. All calls are strictly confidential. With the member’s permission, MAP can monitor treatment progress and make recommendations about when a member is ready to safely return to work. Call MAP today toll-free at 1-888-880-8222.