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Work Stops At Construction Sites As Industry Calls Attention To Drug Addiction Among Its Workers

Cranes stretch into the sky over what will become three-buildings of luxury apartments and condominiums, the Echelon Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Cranes stretch into the sky over what will become three-buildings of luxury apartments and condominiums, the Echelon Seaport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts construction companies and labor unions held work stoppages at project sites across the state on Wednesday as their industry attempts to confront a high rate of fatal opioid overdoses among its ranks.

Robert Petrucelli, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts, a trade group that organized brief, opioid-focused talks at some 50 work sites from Boston to Springfield, said the local industry wasn't aware of the extent of the problem until recent studies revealed sobering statistics.

Construction workers represented roughly 25% of all fatal opioid overdoses among Massachusetts workers from 2011 to 2015, a state Department of Public Health report found last year. They're also six times more likely to fatally overdose on opioids than other workers, according to the report.

Overall opioid-related deaths, meanwhile, continue to decline in Massachusetts, falling about 4% from 2016 to 2018, according to a state Department of Public Health report from last month.

"It was eye popping. It was clear we had to do something," Petrucelli said before addressing some 200 workers at hotel under construction in Boston's booming Seaport district Wednesday morning. "No one talks about this, but it permeates our industry."

The trade group worked with Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction to develop an opioids safety program it hopes companies will now adopt.

The program provides information for employers on how to address opioid use among their workforce, such as recognizing the signs and symptoms of drug addiction, how to respond to an overdose, and highlighting local addiction treatment resources.

Labor unions have also launched their own efforts.

The New England Carpenters Benefit Funds, which administers health and other benefit plans for union members, recently began providing coverage for up to 90 days of substance abuse treatment in a residential facility, according to Paul Greely, the organization's executive director.

The effort has so far placed 25 workers into treatment, of which 18 have completed their programs, he said.

And the Massachusetts Laborers' Benefit Funds launched a program in October to connect workers with substance abuse treatment and other addiction services.

Marc Lyle, one of three new recovery specialists with the union, says the program has assisted more than 130 members and their families to date.

It's imperative for industries hit hard by the opioid crisis to address the challenge head on, as the construction industry is doing, said Michael Botticelli, the Grayken Center's executive director.

Otherwise, the state's economic fortunes will suffer more, he said, citing a report last year from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that suggested the opioid epidemic cost the state more than $15 billion in lost productivity, health care costs and other expenses in 2017 alone.

The addiction epidemic within the local construction industry isn't unique to Massachusetts, either. In Ohio, construction workers were seven times more likely than other workers to die from an opioid overdose between 2010 and 2016, an analysis by the Cleveland Plain Dealer found in 2017.

"We have to take care of each other," said Lyle, the laborers' union recovery specialist, who has been sober for nearly a decade after struggling for years with addiction to prescription painkillers and later heroin. "This is tearing our industry apart."

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