For some jobs, dying from an opioid overdose is an occupational hazard.
CANTON Local construction workers die from opioid overdoses four times more often than workers in other jobs, and they have the highest rate of overdose deaths of any occupation in Stark and Carroll counties.
That’s according to an analysis by The Canton Repository of Ohio Department of Health data compiled and sorted by The Plain Dealer.
From 2010 to 2016, 325 men and women from Stark and Carroll counties died from opioid overdoses. The two counties compose the Canton-Massillon Metropolitan Statistical Area, a geographic region used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to track job trends.
The construction industry had 36 of those deaths, the most of any sector. They included drywallers, roofers, carpenters, painters, laborers, an electrician, a pipefitter and a cement finisher.
The industry also had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths with more than eight per 10,000 workers from 2010 to 2016.
The opioid overdose death rate for all workers in the Canton-Massillon MSA was just shy of two per 10,000.
Testing on the job
“That’s kind of a shock to me that the construction industry is the highest number,” said Dave Kirven, president of the East Central Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council.
The council represents union workers in more than a dozen trades in six counties, including Stark and Carroll.
“I’m not going to say none of our guys … have issues, but we’ve always had drug-testing policies throughout the union construction industry,” and test failures are rare, Kirven said.
Workers are drug tested before getting into a union, face random tests while in a union and are being tested at more and more job sites.
Each trade has a different policy, and some are stricter than others, but discipline is progressive, often starting with a suspension from work, followed by a requirement for treatment and ultimately expulsion, Kirven said.
“Through our health plans, there is rehabilitation and help for anybody who wants it,” Kirven said.
But not all construction workers belong to a union, and their occupation exposes them to injury.
The statewide rate for opioid overdose deaths among construction workers was almost 17 per 10,000 between 2010 and 2016, and hit 27 per 10,000 last year as deaths have increased year after year.
Since 2010, construction workers were about three times more likely to file on-the-job-injury claims, according to a Plain Dealer analysis of Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation data.
More than 80 percent of construction workers who were treated with medication for an injury got narcotics in 2010, according to the Plain Dealer analysis.
Opioid painkillers can be a gateway to addiction. Four in five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription opioids, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. And a study published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in 48 patients receiving an opioid prescription would become an excess long-term opioid user.
And according to the latest information from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 14 percent of construction workers have a substance use disorder, second only to 17 percent of workers in food service and accommodations.
Kirven acknowledged there could be a connection between medical treatment with opioids and addiction in the construction industry.
“I could see that because our guys get beat up,” he said. “You’re only in a trade 10 years, you’re going to have backaches and issues with your shoulders and your hips and knees and everything else.”
The state occupation data has limitations. Families, coroners, funeral directors and medical examiners report the occupation that gets recorded on a death certificate. It might have been the job a person was working when they died or their occupation before they became addicted.
Seventeen of the 325 local deaths didn’t list an occupation of any kind. Another 86 deaths listed an occupation such as homemaker, disabled or student that isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Neither the Stark County coroner nor the Stark County Health Department gather occupational data on overdose deaths.
Vicki J. Fleming, administrative assistant for the Coroner’s Office, said the information usually isn’t pertinent to determining the cause and manner of death.
For the Health Department, occupation data would be a good bit of demographic information to have, but Nicole J. Davis, the department’s prescription drug overdose coordinator, said she hadn’t found a reliable public data source.
Construction wasn’t the only occupation with at least 10 fatalities that had a higher than average rate of opioid overdose deaths. Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance jobs; installation, maintenance and repair jobs; and production or factory jobs also were above the average rate for local workers.
Each of those industries gained workers, with the exception of production, which lost less than 1 percent of its workforce, during those seven years.
Katrina Fitzgerald, an official with United Steelworkers Local 1123, said the Golden Lodge routinely gets calls from members seeking help for themselves or a loved one.
Just last week, Fitzgerald said, she spent half an hour on the phone with the wife of a retiree who was desperate to get help for her son.
Local 1123 represents about 1,800 workers, most of them at TimkenSteel. The union posts substance abuse links on its website, and earlier this year held a Substance Abuse Awareness Day and handed out a brochure with information on how to get help for substance abuse or mental health issues.
Local 1123 President Bob Harper said he brings up addiction at every meeting, even if he gets some eye rolls.
“We know there’s a heroin epidemic in the county, and the state’s got a problem, and it’s right here in Canton,” Harper said.
And some workers get hooked when they start taking painkillers for an injury.
The union can get its members substance abuse evaluations and residential treatment for three to six months, during which the workers can get accident and sickness pay as long as they stay clean.
“These aren’t young kids doing this either,” Harper said. “We got people who have been here 15, 20 years doing it and getting into trouble with drugs.”
“Why give up on these people?” Harper added. “You can’t throw them away. You’ve got to take care of them.”
From injury to addiction
Lesa Haas, of New Philadelphia, knows too well how a work injury can lead to addiction. Her son, Jamin D. DeWalt, died nearly a year ago at a home in Canton. He was 36 years old and had heroin, fentanyl and clonazepam in his body.
Haas said her son hurt his back while working as a cable installer. It was the occupation listed for DeWalt in the overdose database, although his last job before he died was at a fast food restaurant.
As a cable installer, DeWalt crawled under buildings and climbed ladders and spent hours driving to jobs as far as Toledo and Columbus from his home in Newcomerstown. He had two back surgeries for an on-the-job injury, and each time doctors prescribed opioid painkillers. He couldn't work without them, Haas said.
DeWalt’s marriage fell apart after his second surgery, and he and his wife divorced in 2011.
“To relieve his pain of the loss of his family, he started taking opiates,” his mother said.
Vicodin was DeWalt’s drug of choice, but it was difficult for him to find. An acquaintance introduced him to heroin. DeWalt got into legal trouble. Just before he died, he moved to Canton, the town where he grew up, to be closer to his drug supply, his mother said.
“I've lost too much time to waste any more. So show me your soul or don't dare look my way,” he wrote in his final Facebook post on Dec. 4. He died eight days later.
“He beat himself up because he burnt every bridge he could burn,” Haas said, “but he still had the issue.”
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