Construction Forum STL Opioids Program Featured in Forbes Article

By on December 14, 2017

Editor’s Note: This past week a program on “Opioids a Building Epidemic,” which Construction Forum STL hosted a year ago, was featured in a Forbes article, “America’s Workforce Is Paying A Huge Price For The Opioid Epidemic”.


America’s opioid and heroin crisis was declared a national public health emergency last month. The epidemic claimed 64,000 lives last year – more than car accidents or guns. Opiate-related overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.  Not surprisingly, data points to a significant impact on the American workforce and the economy at large.

An October PBS NewsHour report, “How Opioids Have Decimated the American Workforce,” looked at a region in Ohio where employers are hard-pressed to fill job openings for skilled workers. The CEO of Columbiana Boiler Company, Michael Sherwin, said his company has had job vacancies lasting up to two years. He estimated a business loss of $200,000 a year due to the lack of skilled workers. In many cases, candidates who have the necessary skills are unable to pass drug screenings. Sherwin said they have to turn down about 25 percent of qualified applicants for this reason. The report highlighted the story of one skilled welder who had been out of the workforce for three years due to an opioid addiction that began a decade ago when he was prescribed Vicodin for pain, as well as a machinist whose struggle with addiction had kept him out of the workforce for six years.

Even as employers across industries face skilled labor shortages, a growing number of working age men and women are disappearing from the workforce. The labor force participation rate has been declining since 2000, with a notable and consistent decline in labor force participation among men aged 25-54.

Princeton economist Paul Kruger has linked the rise in opioid prescription rates by county with a decline in labor force participation of men and women alike. His findings suggest that the opioid crisis could account for as much as twenty percent of the decline in LFP of working-age men.

Construction and manufacturing – two major industries dealing with skilled labor crunches – are being hit hard by the opioid crisis. Recent reports from insurer CNA Financial Corp showed that spending on opioid prescriptions is consistently five to ten percent higher in construction than any other industry. Spending tends to be higher in manufacturing than in most other industries, CNA also found.

Employers And Unions Tackling The Problem

A group of construction industry stakeholders in St. Louis is confronting the problem head-on. Last December, Construction Forum STL devoted their December panel to the topic, titling the forum “Opioids: A Building Epidemic.” The panel brought together union leaders, medical experts and addiction recovery specialists for a frank discussion about the opioid crisis and what can be done about it.

Don Willey spoke candidly at the forum about his 36-year-old son’s death in 2016 from an overdose, which followed a 15-year struggle with addiction.

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