Gender Chicken and Occupation Egg on Opiate Overdoses


This, as reported by Kim Kalunian on WPRI,, should not be surprising:

The Rhode Island Department of Health has found that construction workers make up nearly a quarter of all fatal opioid overdose victims in the state.

The data was collected from July 2016 to June 2018 and found those in the natural resources, construction and maintenance occupation category — trades like plumbers, fishermen and carpenters — had a much higher rate of opioid-involved overdose death.

Whereas other industries hovered around 40 opioid-related overdose deaths per 100,000 workers, those in construction fields came in more than four times that, at 177.  Something is oddly missing from the article, though:  any mention mention that 95% of workers in the relevant occupations are men.  Even more:  the construction/extraction subcategory accounted for 74% of the deaths within the natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupation group, and that subcategory, is 97% male.

This could affect the analysis in two ways.  It could be — as the article strives to suggest — that construction industries produce physical pain and have a tough-it-out culture that leads to drug use and overdose.  Or it could be that, in keeping with broader investigations, men are more likely to overdose, and therefore a heavily male industry will inevitably have more.  If 80% of all overdoses are men, it isn’t surprising that an industry that is 95% male would account for a disproportionate 25% of such deaths.

So which is it?  Probably a mix, but anecdotally, I can testify that the drug-related deaths and the drug usage I encountered while a carpenter was not apparently related to pain relief.  Indeed, the highest number of overdoses occur among those aged 25-34.

It’s a shame this question isn’t more a part of the public discussion, because it’s absolutely critical.  Naturally, the union organizer quoted in the WPRI article, Michael Sabitoni, talks about the need for better benefits for workers and says his organization is “working aggressively to change the culture because it is an industry where toughness and perseverance dominate.”  The problem is that, if the maleness of the industry is more the cause than the effect of the disproportionate overdoses, then trying to make the culture of the industry more (let’s be honest) feminine might make matters worse.

There is a balance to be struck.  One carpenter I worked with would periodically carry an entire bundle of 2x6s across the job site just to see if he could.  I once installed a large steel beam by myself for the same reason.  Take the opportunity for “toughness and perseverance” out of the job, and we may find that the men feel more, not less, of whatever it is that’s leading them to take drugs.  That is, maybe the drugs are relief from a different kind of pain than the physical aches that (to be honest) a lot of guys are proud to have earned.