PROVIDENCE – Among all occupations in the Ocean State, construction and maintenance workers in Rhode Island continue to be hardest hit by the opioid overdose crisis, according to a new report from the R.I. Department of Health.
Jaejoon Shin, an epidemiologist for the Center for Health Data and Analysis at the R.I. Department of Health, delivered a presentation on Wednesday about the the 1,251 fatal overdoses that took place from January 2016 through June 2020 in the Ocean State, breaking down this information based on the types of jobs held by decedent, showing that 26.4% of opioid-related overdose deaths in the state took the lives of those in construction, maintenance, and natural resource-related occupations.
Strictly among the 1,211 Rhode Islanders who were employed when they died of an overdose during that time frame, 36% were in construction, maintenance, and natural resource-related jobs. At the same time, this category of workers spanning fishermen, mechanics, carpenters, and electricians, employs just 7% of Rhode Island’s working population, Shin said, making it a vastly overrepresented in the occupational findings on overdose deaths.
The presentation took place during a meeting of the state’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, which was formed in 2015 under former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, after Rhode Island suffered 239 deaths caused by drug overdose the previous year before she took office.
Of the 330 Rhode Island construction, maintenance and natural resource workers who died from opioid overdose during those past 4 ½ years, 75% were specifically employed doing construction and extraction work, while 18% of those were employed as installation, maintenance and repair technicians, and another roughly 8% were involved with fishing, farming or forestry.
The presentation demonstrated that the fatal danger posed by the opioid addiction crisis is even worse for the construction industry than it was two years prior. Previously, in a 2019 report documenting fatal overdoses from June 2016 through June 2018, the Department of Health said that 20% of people who had died from a fatal overdose were employed in construction-related jobs.
The next most hard-hit group of workers have been those in Rhode Island’s service industry, including cooks, bartenders, janitors, nurse’s assistants and security guards, Shin said. About 17.6% of those who died of opioid overdose, or 220 people, were service industry workers, he said.
Of those service industry workers who died of opioid overdose, about half were food service workers, including cooks and wait staff, Shin said.
Shin said the next steps for the task force involve developing a more “detailed data brief” specific to the construction and maintenance sectors, using information gathered form the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System. Then, the task force needs to leverage existing partnerships with local organizations to implement more overdose prevention initiatives in the workplace. Health officials said they’ve done outreach to labor unions before, but more needs to be done.
“It’s an important connection to make,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health.
The majority of fatal overdoses in Rhode Island, accounting for about 75% during this time, took the lives of people who are 25 to 54 years old, and about 75% of all those deaths were men, according to Shin’s report.
Alexander-Scott said the state needs to further address the root causes of the overdose crisis by “going upstream,” looking at the availability of resources for recovery and addressing underlying factors including racial equity, while continuing to respond to the immediate impacts of drug abuse through Narcan distribution, education and training aimed at “keeping people alive and thriving in recovery.”
Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com.
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