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New Report Finds A Link Between Opioid Overdose Deaths And Construction Work

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Meredith Nierman/WGBH

A new report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that construction and extraction workers are six times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than the average worker.

The higher rate of work-related injuries in these fields might be part of the problem, according to Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.

"This really means that we need to drill down further to do additional work, to see to what extent might things like work-related injuries and potentially being prescribed opioid pain meds ... how that might be related to opioid misuse," Bharel says.

Another indicator, the report found, is occupations with low job security and a lack of paid sick leave.

"Common sense would say, if you are feeling some job insecurity and you have pain, or you don't have sick leave, [that] would be something you seek out to relieve your pain," Bharel says.

For Joe Blades, who works as a pipe fitter, it's not surprising that construction workers have a higher rate of fatal opiod overdoses than people who work in other industries. He says that as a high school student he experimented with drugs, but when he got hurt on the job years later, things spiraled.

"I got a prescription, and it kind of just took off from there," he says.

Blades was given Percocet, and after the prescription ran out, he started seeking out drugs on the street.

"Now that I'm someone who's a recovering addict, I've met a lot of people in construction who are in recovery," he says.

Blades adds that others in construction might already have substance use disorders and seek out jobs for the fast cash.

"It's a quick buck. Someone's giving you cash," Blades says. "You're gonna show up, you're gonna do some laboring or whatever."

This is the first time the Department of Public Health has looked at opioid-related deaths by industry and occupation. The study reviewed death certificates from 2011-2015. Other industries with higher than average rates of opioid-related deaths include farming, fishing, healthcare support occupations, food preparation, and the restaurant industry. The industries with the highest rates also varied by gender: for men, the highest rate was in construction. For women, serving, food prep, and healthcare support had the highest rates.

"We're using the data we have at the Department of Public Health to really look at this opioid epidemic in new and important ways," Bharel says. "So we have taken, really for the first time at the state level, data from across different state agencies and different data silos, and brought them together in a way that helps us better understand who is suffering from the opioid epidemic, where we can intervene, and what's causing them to die."

The department plans to continue doing analysis and research while also reaching out to workers in fields with the highest risk to figure out how best to intervene.

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