Why builders should just say yes to drug testing

Safety on the jobsite has been compromised since the beginning of modern home building by workers under the influence of alcohol and illicit drugs. It is up to builders and their crews on the ground to implement and enforce a strict drug and alcohol policy.
By By Nick Bajzek, Products Editor | December 31, 2007
Common OSHA Violations

The construction industry accounts for some 20 percent of work-related deaths. The leading causes of these deaths aren't dramatic in nature — most of the time it's a collapsed wall, improperly assembled scaffolds or a worker's failure to wear proper safety equipment that leads to an accident.

But an alarmingly large number of these incidents have something in common: workers were intoxicated or still under the influence of narcotics. The role that alcohol and drugs play in a construction workplace accident varies, but figures can run as high as 50 percent, as a 2006–2007 study by the National Council on Compensation and Insurance and Cornell University shows.

Drug and alcohol-related problems plague builders and contractors large and small in residential construction and it begs the question: Are we doing enough?

OSHA's role

It's no secret that drinking and illicit drug use on the job is fairly common. Workers reporting for duty "buzzed" or hung over represent one of the single largest threats to your bottom dollar. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cites an unusually high rate of past-month substance abuse among full-time workers in the construction industry: illicit drug use has a rate of 13.7 percent and heavy alcohol use comes in at 15.9 percent. This is wildly higher than the 7.8 percent and 8.1 percent, respectively, than the general population, according to the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

According to OSHA's Communications Office Director Kevin L. Ropp, "OSHA, working with the Department of Labor's Working Partners Program, has formed an Alliance with several International Labor Unions, contractor associations and the Mine Safety and Health Administration to promote drug-free construction work sites. But OSHA currently has no standard or regulation on mandatory drug testing." Even so, OSHA can't police every site and evaluate every worker.

Agency representatives, however, say the agency does make on-site inspections a top priority. "OSHA uses a targeting system to inspect high-hazard industries and construction job sites. The agency also conducts inspections when a fatality occurs, when a referral is made to the agency and when a formal complaint is filed with the Agency," says Ropp, adding that 39,039 federal inspections and 55,666 state plan inspections occurred in fiscal year 2007.

OSHA recommends employees who test positive for drugs or a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.02 or above must immediately be removed from the project and placed on inactive status. The body also recommends workers who tested positive either successfully complete a rehabilitation program or be deemed eligible by a counselor to return to work.

How widespread is the problem?

Author Peter Cholakis, vice president of Avitar., which develops, manufactures and markets oral-based drug testing products, says the drug problem in the New England markets is particularly widespread. "Consider these sobering statistics: while 10 percent of workers aged 18 to 49 years old abuse drugs — whether they're using illicit drugs including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, or misusing prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin — reported use in the construction sector is as high as 30 percent of workers," says Cholakis.

Raw data in support of sobriety

In his study "An Evaluation of Drug Testing in the Workplace: A Study of the Construction Industry," researcher Jonathan Gerber proposed to test how effective drug-testing programs at construction companies were in making the workplace safer. He developed a survey that he sent in December 1999 to a randomly selected national sample of officials at 405 construction companies. Officials at 71 companies responded.

Gerber examined the data on injury incident rates and workers' compensation experience-rating modification factors compiled over a five-year period and supplied by the National Council on Compensation Insurance. Among the study's findings was that, on average, those companies in the study that tested workers and job applicants for drugs experienced a 51 percent reduction in injury rates within two years of implementing a drug-testing program, compared with only a 14 percent decline in injury rates in the average construction company in general during the same two-year period.

Rising work-related injuries have brought the cost of insurance for contractors to a point where many builders and contractors have been forced out of the game. On the punitive side, costly OSHA citations can pile up if your crews perform sloppy work because of their extracurricular activities. After all, why would you want a job site full of drunks and druggies?


Common OSHA Violations

Falling is both a primal fear and one of the most commonly-cited OSHA violations. Of those violations, the ones reported most often are:

  1. Failure to protect workers from falls of 6 feet or more off unprotected sides or edges, e.g. floors and roofs 1926.501(b)(1); (b)(10); and (b)(11)
  2. Failure to protect workers from falling into or through holes and openings in floors and walls 1926.501(b)(4) and (b)(14)
  3. Failure to provide guardrails on runways and ramps where workers are exposed to falls of 6 feet or more to a lower level 1926.501(b)(6)