Dena Calo, a partner with Saul Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, at ARTBA’s annual Law & Regulatory Forum in June.

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the May/June issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine.

By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA 

The construction industry is fighting in the nationwide battle against drug abuse and opioid addiction, which impacts its second largest sector—transportation. Here are some frightening statistics:

  • Roughly half of all construction workers’ compensation claims submitted to the Travelers Companies Inc., involve opioid prescriptions.
  • The construction sector—including residential, commercial, and transportation—ranked highest nationwide for workers testing positive for cocaine usage at 0.41 percent in 2017—more than 33 percent higher than the general U.S. workforce, according to Quest Diagnostics, a diagnostic information services provider.
  • Positive tests for the use of methamphetamines—highly addictive stimulants—were highest in the construction industry in each year between 2015 and 2017, experiencing a 15 percent jump in the period.
  • Positive tests for marijuana use during the same three-year period jumped nearly 27 percent, putting construction industry employees second only to transportation operators and warehousing workers in the use of pot.

Faced with these daunting numbers, the transportation construction sector is coming to grips with an unpleasant reality: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the complicated issue of drug and opioid abuse. Interviews with executives from transportation construction firms, insurers, the labor community, and workers’ compensation lawyers instead point to one consistent, time-honored remedy: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“It’s a really vicious cycle,” says Chris Trahan Cain, executive director at the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and safety and health director for North America’s Building Trades Unions. “The trick is how we can interrupt this cycle from the beginning.”

Helpful Resources

These websites contain multiple resources, including links to U.S. government agencies.


Whether it involves continually lifting heavy objects or repeatedly hammering things into place, workers in the construction industry can be prone to repetitive motion injuries. The drug and opioid abuse cycle starts when an injured worker, reluctant to leave a jobsite, sees a doctor who prescribes powerful pain-killers. By continuing to work, the employee slows the healing or aggravates the injury. Ongoing pain leads to increased doses to relieve pain. Addiction can set in.

“Unfortunately, we work in an industry that is highly subject to a large number of chronic pain incidents,” says Michael Sturino, president and CEO of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association (IRTBA), an ARTBA state contractor chapter. “Opioids are effective in battling pain but are extraordinarily destructive when it comes to addiction.”

Faced with no one federal or state government-sponsored remedy, transportation construction firms are choosing for themselves how to address the issue, ensure a safe work environment, and help employees recover. Employers, unions, insurers, and government recognize the problem and, working in concert, are dealing with it. They employ a variety of approaches, including frequent drug testing, company drug policy education and working with injured employees to find alternative pain-management techniques.

“I think we are doing a good job of keeping drug users out of our workforce,” says Mark Potnick, director of labor relations and safety affairs for the Ohio Contractors Association, an ARTBA contractor affiliate. “The tools are there to fight it. But it’s a big, widespread issue.”

One Firm’s Approach

At Vecellio Group, Inc., based in West Palm Beach, Florida, the focus is on helping employees throughout its multi-state operations avoid that vicious cycle before the use of opioids becomes an acute addiction. “It starts with a strong written policy outlining the company’s position on drug use in the workplace,” says Vice President Michael Vecellio, co-owner of the fourth-generation family contractor firm.

Vecellio, first vice president of ARTBA’s Contractors Division, says his firm works with its construction unions to facilitate the return of injured workers, including lightduty assignments or temporary transfers to a different job classification that allows them to stay on the payroll and in compliance with company policy on drug use.

The Vecellio Group, for its part, keeps its policies updated to comply with applicable local, state and federal laws, including those relating to medical and recreational marijuana use. Per federal law, the group considers marijuana a prohibited substance in all states where it has operations, even if the states allow medical and non-medical marijuana use.

To ensure compliance among employees, each morning during pre-shift job meetings, supervisors conduct informal “fitness for duty” evaluations to assess the physical and mental status of each employee. The goal is to ensure everyone is alert and able to work, keeping job sites and employees safe.

Insurance Industry Role

For the insurance industry, the opioid abuse epidemic requires a widespread effort at addiction prevention as well, in part to reduce the amount of workers’ compensation claims it must process and pay, says Richard Ives, Travelers’ vice president of workers’ compensation claims.

“We see the construction industry uniquely impacted by this crisis,” he says.

That has led Travelers to develop an early intervention approach called the Early Severity Predictor model, which helps forecast which injured employees are at higher risk of developing chronic pain. A pharmacy management program in turn monitors drug interactions, excessive dosing and abuse patterns to reduce the risk of opioid dependency.

Once a claim is identified, a team with a variety of viewpoints, including medical and claim managers, reviews it. If the claim is accepted into the program, the group creates a specific action plan that often includes physical therapy and other interventions to prevent acute pain from becoming chronic.

The approach is particularly relevant to the construction industry. Travelers insurance claims data shows that injured construction workers who suffer from chronic pain can be out of work as much as 50 percent longer than those in other industries.

Contractors & Unions Working Together on Prevention

Sturino says IRTBA recognized the potential for opioid drug abuse early and addressed the issue in the collective bargaining agreements it struck with unions.

“We were able to get extremely rigid rules for doctors to prescribe opioids for pain,” he says. “As a result, we don’t believe it’s much of an issue in our workforce. Our healthcare plans don’t allow for opioid use to be payable. They try to treat pain with non-opioid prescriptions.”

In Ohio, Potnick says there is “great buy in” from unions for testing and drug eradication or rehabilitation programs.

“The unions were skeptical at first until they started seeing what has happened, and now the unions are pretty good partners,” he says. “We all suffer if the problem is not controlled.”

Indeed, preventing on-the-job construction injuries before they become chronic is the focus of a “Best Built Plans” program by CPWR. It provides contractors and workers with practical tools and information to plan for safe materials handling.

CPWR’s website contains a “Materials Handling Contractor Planning Tool,” which provides construction firms with tools and information to plan for how materials will be stored, lifted and moved at every project stage. CPWR says the plan helps contractors prevent injuries, control insurance costs, improve productivity and meet schedules, as well as continue to win work and retain employees.

Legal Obstacles

Dena Calo, a partner with Saul Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, says the best advice to combat the epidemic is to be totally
transparent with employees about your workplace specific drug-use policy.

“This problem isn’t left at home, it comes into the workplace,” she says.

Despite the inconsistent legal situation, Potnick says the safest thing to do is to test and be damned. “If you are not testing in this day and age, you are absolutely crazy,” he says.