Construction Injuries and Opioid Addiction in Massachusetts

Massachusetts construction companies are focusing on the risks created by opioid use and addiction and the role these drugs play in work injuries.

The Massachusetts chapter of Associated General Contractors sponsored a statewide opioid awareness day on June 5, to draw attention to the impact the opioid crisis is having on the construction industry in New England. Workplace overdoses have increased by 25 percent each year for the last 5 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unintentional overdose is now responsible for 5 percent of all workplace deaths, claiming nearly 300 lives each year.

Opioid addiction was declared a public health emergency in 2017, after the Centers for Disease Control reported opioid deaths surpassed motor-vehicle accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. However, construction workers face some of the highest risks.  Construction workers are at six times greater risk that the average Massachusetts worker, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and now account for 25 percent of workplace opioid deaths. Boston Workers' Comp

AGC has produced a manual to help contractors identify and mitigate the use of opioids at construction sites. Common signs include constricted or “pinpoint pupils,” falling asleep or losing consciousness, slow or shallow breathing, choking or gurgling sounds, blue or cold skin, and limp extremities.

Our Massachusetts workers’ compensation lawyers know many construction workers become addicted to painkillers while seeking legitimate treatment for work-related injuries. In some cases, a doctor or medical professional may have inappropriately prescribed potent narcotics for too long a period of time. In other cases, a medical professional may withhold or eliminate a patient’s access to pain medication, forcing injured or addicted workers to turn to street narcotics to manage the pain. Prescription opioids may include hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine, while illicit opioids most commonly include heroin and fentanyl.

The Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act (M.G.L. Ch. 152), is meant to provide timely, no-fault benefits to injured workers. Unfortunately, lack of legally mandated coverage is a significant issue in the construction industry, which too often relies upon independent contractors and day laborers. Even in cases where an employer is carrying the required coverage, construction companies and their insurers typically look for ways to reduce costs, usually at the expense of an injured or disabled employee. While insurers continue to point to legal fees as a reason for rising costs, the reality is more employees are seeking legal help because they can no longer count on strong union representation or conscientious employers to secure the benefits to which they are entitled under the law.

A workers’ compensation lawyer in Massachusetts will be in the best position to protect injured workers from the outset of injury. These are complex cases, both medically and legally. Even when a worker thinks he is not seriously injured, complicating factors such as pre-existing conditions, addiction, and long-term health consequences, mean having qualified legal help from the start of your case is the best thing you can do to protect your rights and the long-term financial wellbeing of you and your family.

Workplace factors that contribute to overdose death include:

  • Combining opioids with other drugs, such as alcohol.
  • Taking a high daily dose of opioids or taking more than prescribed.
  • Taking illicit drugs, like heroin or fentanyl.
  • Taking other medications, or having other health conditions, including sleep apnea and reduced liver or kidney function.
  • Being an older worker.

While we are certainly concerned about the epidemic of opioid overdose and addiction, our primary focus has always been on helping injured workers. Unfortunately, a primary consequence of the focus on opioid use is that both medical professionals and employers may be too quick to blame the employee. Whether an injured worker is using narcotic medication as prescribed, or has lapsed into misuse, understanding and treating all of the causes and consequences of a work injury is the responsibility of the employer and workers’ compensation insurance provider, including providing alternative treatment options and providing necessary drug addiction treatment and counseling. Tragically, the trend instead has been to blame the worker and terminate employment or withhold treatment on the grounds of workplace drug abuse.

The other major impact opioids have in the workplace is the significantly increased risk of workplace accident or injury faced by coworkers of an addicted employee. This is true in all workplaces, but is particularly true among construction workers, who already deal with the nation’s highest rates of workplace injury. Construction workers comprise just 4 percent of U.S. employment, but account for more than 1-in-5 workplace deaths, resulting in nearly 1,000 construction deaths each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nearly 70,000 construction workers a year are seriously injured. In fact, nearly all construction workers will report at least one serious work-related injury in their lifetime; a career construction worker has a 75 percent chance of suffering a disabling injury. The most common causes of fatal construction injuries are falls, struck by object, electrocution, and caught in/between equipment, structures or materials.

Even in cases where a rehabilitating workers has returned to the job under the influence of prescribed medication, the employer must carefully consider assigning light duty, restricting driving and operation of heavy machinery, and taking other steps to protect co-workers from injury as a result of working with someone under the influence of prescribed narcotic pain medication.

Our work injury lawyers in Boston believe better enforcement of workplace safety rules would significantly reduce the risk of construction injuries. In our view, it is grossly unfair to blame a construction worker for opioid addiction or dependence after injury on a job site that could have been prevented with proper and lawful safety measures. The most common work safety violations in the construction industry cited by the Occupations Safety and Health Administration include lack of adequate fall protection, and improper use of ladders and scaffolding. Falls account for about 40 percent of deaths in the construction industry and most commonly result in very serious, debilitating injuries, for which prescribed opioids are a necessary part of treatment of recovery.

If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston work accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.