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Alcoholism Among Construction & Manual Laborers

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) produces reliable data regarding rates of substance abuse and substance use disorders in the United States. The last reporting period for which SAMHSA reported rates of substance abuse by profession is for the years 2008 to 2012. The data was published in 2015. The next data set covering the five-year period between 2013 and 2017 will most likely not be available until 2018 or 2019.

Blue-Collar Works and Alcohol Use

In the latest data set from SAMHSA, blue-collar workers exhibited high rates of heavy alcohol use within the past month (more than 5-7 drinks on a single occasion). Individuals employed in the mining industry displayed the highest rate of heavy alcohol use in the month previous to the survey (17.5%) and construction workers displayed the second highest rate of past heavy alcohol use (16.5%).

The overall average for individuals reporting past-month heavy alcohol use across the 19 major occupations surveyed was 8.7%. Thus, these blue-collar workers displayed much higher rates of past month alcohol use than would be expected over all of the occupations surveyed. The percentages of individuals in these professions reporting past-month heavy alcohol use was up compared to the rates reported in the previous reporting period (2003-2007) by about 1% in both cases.

In addition, average rates of substance use disorders over all professions surveyed was 9.5%. Blue-collar workers reported higher rates of diagnosed substance use disorders than the average. Construction workers reported a rate of diagnosed substance use disorders of 14.3%, whereas those in the mining industry reported a rate of 11.8%. The particular type of substance use disorder diagnosed in each profession is not revealed in the survey. However, construction workers reported relatively high rates of past-month illicit drug use (11.6%), whereas workers in the mining industry reported relatively low rates of past-month illicit drug use (5%; the overall average for all the professions surveyed was 8.6%). Rates of substance use disorders diagnosed in the general population are typically reported as being between 8% and 10%.

It is clear from the data that alcohol use and abuse is a significant problem among blue-collar workers. Illicit drug abuse may be more of an issue with construction workers than with those in the mining industry. The data does not specify rates of alcohol use disorders within these professions, but given the data, it can be surmised that a good percentage of individuals who report being diagnosed with a substance use disorder either had an alcohol use disorder or polysubstance use disorder that included alcohol abuse because both of these professions had high rates of reported heavy alcohol use.

Information on Other Professions

What Is the Reason for Heavy Alcohol Use among Blue-Collar Workers?

Blue-collar workers have relatively high rates of heavy alcohol use, and heavy use of alcohol is a risk factor for developing an alcohol use disorder. These rates are not believed to be due to factors such as gender or the age of most blue-collar workers. The book Addiction at Work: Tackling Drug Abuse and Misuse in the Workplace discusses numerous reasons why alcohol use may be part of the routine of the blue-collar worker’s daily lifestyle.

  • Blue-collar jobs are often very predictable, routine, and may not challenge the individual mentally.
  • Many blue-collar workers may work long hours, especially those who have seasonal work, such as construction workers or those in the mining profession. Research has suggested that those who more than 50 hours per week are much more likely to begin using alcohol heavily than those who work fewer than 50 hours per week.
  • The combination of routine and unchallenging work with long hours may result in these individuals becoming more vulnerable to substance use and abuse, particularly alcohol use because alcohol is generally acceptable to these individuals and easy to obtain.
  • Advancement opportunities in blue-collar positions are rare. Lack of advancement or potential advancement can lead to issues with resentment and feelings of stagnation for these workers.
  • The cyclical nature of some blue-collar jobs, such as construction work, often results in individuals having significant periods of free time where they feel stagnant and bored. These conditions can lead to substance use and abuse.
  • Blue-collar workers often have an attitude that they deserve to “play hard” because they work hard.
  • Many of these individuals come from backgrounds where alcohol and the use of certain illicit drugs is commonplace and accepted.

Heavy alcohol use by blue-collar workers increases the risk for accidents and injuries in the workplace. This is true even if individuals do not drink on the job because their physical and mental faculties may be dulled from a previous evening’s drinking. In addition, workers who drink heavily on a regular basis may produce lower quality of work, have higher rates of absenteeism, and display more medical issues, all of which can be costly to the company.

There are several policies that may be put into effect to decrease alcohol use among blue-collar workers.

  • Policies regarding alcohol and substance use on the job should be made clear to all workers and individuals should understand the ramifications of using alcohol or drugs while at work.
  • Managers and supervisors should be trained in recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder in workers. Workers who display these signs on a regular basis should be evaluated for a potential alcohol use disorder.
  • Coworkers should be able to discuss any concerns regarding alcohol or drug use among their peers with management in a confidential manner that protects them.
  • The goals of management should be targeted on not having workers use alcohol or drugs while on the job as well as not coming to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or hungover.
  • Workers who have issues with alcohol abuse should be able to discuss their alcohol usage with managers and supervisors and should be able to enter treatment without the fear of losing their job.

The majority of employers in the United States, particularly in blue-collar industries, do not utilize regular alcohol and drug screenings for their employees unless there are regulations enacted by the local or federal government that require them to do so. Interestingly, a study by Cornell University supports the notion that alcohol screening and drug testing may be useful in blue-collar industries. According to this study:

  • Construction companies that instituted drug testing for their employees had a 51% reduction in on-the-job injuries two years after instituting a drug testing program.
  • Companies that do routine alcohol and drug screens have a significant reduction in workers’ compensation claims from their employees.
  • Small and medium-sized companies often suffer the most from these issues among their employees because they do not have provisions for alcohol and drug screenings. Larger organizations may have these provisions and find the practice to be effective.
  • When a worker tests positive for drugs or displays high levels of alcohol in their system, employers should carefully discuss the situation with them and offer the individual treatment as opposed to terminating them or imposing strict sanctions on their work. Treatment programs can be offered through Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as well as health and wellness programs that work with the organization.
  • Organizations can also sponsor social support group meetings, such as regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

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Holding a Workplace Intervention

In addition, according to the book the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work, there is research that indicates that when workers are given more autonomy in decision-making capabilities, they are more satisfied with their work, and there are less work-related accidents and higher levels of productivity. Individuals who begin to find the work more challenging and satisfying may be less likely to engage in heavy alcohol use, particularly during working hours.

Ensuring that workers will not be subjected to sanctions as a result of entering treatment programs for alcohol use disorders or other substances is a key component to give individuals the help they need and keep them in these programs. Employees should be assured that their participation in treatment programs will be held strictly confidential by the company.