Resources & Insights

Substance Abuse Rises Amid COVID-19

July 16, 2020

Scott Carlson,
President, Construction Practice

7-minute read

As a heroin addict, Tim Ryan lost his job, then his home, and then his wife. A few months after being released from prison in 2014, he also lost his 20-year-old son, Nick, to a heroin overdose. Today, Ryan serves as a “sober coach,” runs opiate recovery groups and is a well-known and well-regarded recovery advocate.

Ryan, in other words, has for some time had a good view into the struggle addicts face – including at the moment, amid the growing crisis caused by COVID-19.

Here’s what he recently told

“We had a pandemic with mental health and opiates and addiction prior to COVID. What COVID has unfortunately done is fueled another pandemic within a pandemic because you have different people – you have the people that might have been in recovery, early recovery or even long-term that were used to going to 12-step meetings or Christian fellowship or refuge recovery or smart recovery. Now they have all these fears such as I might not have a job, I don’t know if I can pay my rent or I’m losing my job … what am I going to do? Relapses have been through the roof.”

The construction industry knows this sad tale all too well.

A 2019 study by researchers at the New York University College of Global Public Health found construction workers and miners are much more likely than people in other professions to misuse opioids, cocaine and marijuana.

Construction and extraction workers use prescription opioids more often than all other professions combined – 3.4% vs. 2%. These workers also are most likely to use cocaine, with 1.8% reporting use compared to 0.8% in all other professions.

The researchers also observed that having unstable work schedules or missing work was linked to being more likely to use drugs.

Most dramatically, missing three to five days of work in the past month due to illness or injury was associated with double the odds of opioid misuse.

These statistics reflect some of the unpleasant realities in the construction world even before COVID.

So what happens when workers return to the job after extended furloughs or layoffs forced by COVID? How serious will substance abuse be among construction workers once the pandemic subsides?

At this point, we can only guess, but is there any doubt the problem will be profound?

As risk managers, our advice is straightforward: Make sure your substance abuse policy includes clear language about testing. Here are excerpts of a sample:

Pre-employment testing

Personnel applying for positions may be required to pass a chemical screen test as a condition of employment. This will be completed before any job offers are finalized. If a pre-staffing chemical screen is diluted, the job applicant shall be warned that a second dilute test will result in the job offer being withdrawn.

Reasonable suspicion

All staff members will be tested for drugs and/or alcohol when there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the staff member has violated the organization drug and alcohol policy. Reasonable suspicion may exist when the staff member has been arrested during non-working hours for drug or alcohol use.


Post-accident testing may be required when a staff member is involved in an accident, whether the staff member is responsible for the accident in whole or in part when another person is operating the equipment or motor vehicle. Post-accident testing may be required in the event of an injury requiring medical care, damage to property or in a near-miss situation that could have resulted in injury or damage.

Random testing

Random testing will be facilitated by computer-generated random number selection or by other valid method. Each employee will have an equal chance of being selected. Refusal or failing to show up for the test within two hours of a request will result in a presumption that the employee was incapable of passing the test and that the test results would have indicated an unacceptable level of prohibited substances.

If you’re just now drafting a substance abuse policy, or checking the language of an existing policy, it’s best to be as clear as possible in your wording and intent. Your HR department and corporate counsel will thank you. But there’s another important point about this to consider:

Sometimes, the people dealing with substance abuse are long-time employees, dedicated, hard-working and just needing some help to straighten things out.

Here’s how Tim Ryan put it:

“What more companies need to do is if they have an employee that’s struggling, do everything you can to get that person help because it’s much more cost-effective to support that employee, get them help, get them into treatment … then try to replace them. It usually takes seven to eight people to replace that one person. So you’re better off investing in people and letting them know that addiction and mental health is out there and if you have an issue, we’re here to support you. Especially with everything that’s been going on.

“You have COVID and then all suddenly we have all these protests and these riots. A lot of people are in fear. They have a lot of anxiety. They have panic, and they don’t know who they can talk to. And if you’re able to talk to people at the workplace, that’s a great thing.”

Scott Carlson is the president of CCIG’s Construction Practice. Reach him at or at 720-212-2040.

CCIG is a Denver-area insurance, employee benefits and surety brokerage with clients nationwide. We do more than make sure you have the right policy. We help you manage your long-term cost of insurance with our risk and claims management expertise and a commitment to service excellence.


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