Crisis: Drugs & workers

Working class men, women hit hard locally

More than half the people who have died from accidental opioid overdoses in Washington County over the past six years – 17 out of 28 – were blue collar workers, according to data compiled by the Central Ohio Newspaper Cooperative.

They had more in common than hard physical work on the job. All completed high school but had no college, and only one was married and living with his spouse – the rest were widowed, divorced or separated, but most were never married at all. They were laborers, factory line workers, dock hands and construction workers and contractors. One was a timber cutter, another was a carpenter and one was an electrician. Their ages ranged from 21 to 58, with an average age of 40.

All met their ends by accidental overdoses of heroin or another opiate or combination of opioid drugs.

The grief of those left behind – parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and friends – can be seen in their obituary notices.

One was a fan of the Buckeyes and willing to help anyone in need. Another loved children and enjoyed cutting firewood and karaoke music. One was a former Eagle Scout. Another was an avid fisherman and outdoorsman. One was an Army veteran loved for his sense of humor.

Although help didn’t reach them in time, many forms of help are available, and for working class men and women, that help can sometimes be reached through unions or employers.

John Eddleblute, manager for the Ohio Laborers District Council Local 639 in Marietta, said the council is rigorous about drug testing its members. The local has 445 members, of whom 105 are retired, he said.

“Our people have to have an annual drug test, and if someone would come back positive, they have to see a substance abuse professional. They can’t get back on the list until the substance abuse professional signs off,” he said.

Rita Maynard is the drug and education office manager for the Parkersburg-Marietta Contractors and Trades Education and Development Fund, a joint agency representing both unions and contractors. Over the six years she has been in the office, she said, drug testing for workers through the office has consistently run at about one percent positive. The office serves six counties in Ohio and eight in West Virginia, with 174 member contractors and 24 union halls. It administers drug screens on about 5,400 people annually.

One percent positive testing would amount to just over 50 per year, and Maynard said the vast majority of positives are for marijuana, with just a few heroin and cocaine alerts. A positive test means suspension for 30 days and the start of a compulsory program.

“If a test is positive, the worker has to see an Employee Assistance Program substance abuse counselor within 30 days. When they meet the guidelines set by the counselor, they are eligible to take the back-to-work test,” she said. “After that, they are set for random testing for a year, and if they keep passing they are eligible to continue working.”

Many union workers are eligible for assistance such as detox or rehab through medical insurance provided by employers, she said.

“We really try, we do whatever we can for these guys to get them back to work,” she said. “We give them a multitude of chances. We’re really in the process of trying to help them.”

The unions are concerned both about the welfare of members and safety on the job.

Christina Zimmer, a communications specialist with the Affiliated Construction Trades of Ohio, said construction and building trades have to be conscientious about worker sobriety.

“It’s dangerous work on the best of days … it’s imperative we have a drug-free workforce,” she said.

Bill Hutchinson, business manager for the Parkersburg-Marietta Building and Construction Trades Council, said an assistance program is important.

“These are a very demanding physical jobs,” he said. “If they get hurt, we have a system of assessing and advising them about the use of painkillers. We want them to get well, to get help if they need it. We don’t want to to just kick anyone aside.”

Matt Archer works in the Ohio Laborers Fringe Benefit Programs office in Columbus, an administrative group for health and other benefits received by union members. He said the organization has been concerned for several years about the vulnerability of laborers to addiction through prescription medications they might receive as the result of injuries, chronic physical stress and pain. The office began a tracking system through its prescription drug benefits claims.

“We started a fraud, waste and abuse program eight years ago. At that time, Oxycontin was the No. 1 drug. The program monitors members getting narcotics, sleep aids, all forms of addictive drugs,” he said. “We look for abuse and addiction patterns, like doctor-shopping, and we’ve clamped down on that. Since then, we’ve seen a real drop-off.”

Any remaining abuse and addiction problems can be attributed to members obtaining drugs illegally rather than through legitimate channels, he said.

“We’ve done the crack-down, and the rest of the problem, well, I don’t know that anyone has found a good solution for that,” he said.

The benefits office out of concern over the widely publicized level of opioid overdose deaths began tracking causes of death among active union members for the first time this year, and found five caused by accidental opioid overdose, he said, an unexpectedly low number in view of the public attention the issue has received.

“It may be an anomaly,” he said. “There may be more to it.”

By the numbers

Fatal overdoses in Washington County, 2010-16, by occupation and age

¯ Construction worker, age 26

¯Dock worker, age 24

¯ Electrician, age 51

¯ Factory worker, ages 58, 29

¯ Carpenter, age 28

¯ Self employed contractor, age 51

¯ Laborer, ages 21, 49, 47, 47, 21, 35, 52

¯ Timber cutter, age 40

¯ Truck driver, age 52

¯ Computer technician, age 46

¯ Student, age 17

¯ Homemaker, age 39

¯ No occupation given, unemployed or disabled, ages 27, 23, 29, 44, 29, 51

¯ Nurse, ages 53, 43

¯ Cosmetologist, age 38