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US opioid crisis putting focus on construction sector drug testing

When city council began compiling its construction safety bill earlier this year, a non-union workers advocacy group pushed for mandatory drug testing to be included.

Instead of testing, drug and alcohol “awareness” was included as one of more than two dozen suggestions for improved training standards.

Appearing alongside “fall protection,” “personal protection equipment” and “safely working with machines” in the bill, also known as Intro 1447-C, substance abuse is a broad topic amidst the even broader theme of worksite safety that the 15-person site safety training task force is delving into.

However, more than most matters on the list, it remains a tension point between organized labor and merit shop workers.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, the organization pushing for standardized drug testing, hopes the task force will echo its thoughts on substance abuse, arguing that both union and non-union workforces struggle with the issue equally. Meanwhile, labor leaders continue to shoot back, claiming that the notion is a “diversionary” tactic to distract from the shortcomings they say lie primarily with the non-union workforce.


“I find it ironic because we, in the unionized construction industry, already engage with voluntary drug testing when the owner requests it and is willing to pay for it,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, Said. “Obviously, the fact the ABC is even raising the issue acknowledges the fact that it’s not being done in the non-union sector.

“It’s a very complicated issue and the goal, when we talk about addiction, it’s not to kick people to the curb, it’s to help people rebuild their lives.”

Pointing to a rash of construction-related deaths and accidents in the city in recent years as well as common drug testing policies for other professions, Brian Sampson, president of the ABC’s Empire State Chapter, argued that testing needs to be standardized across all projects in New York City, not just ones in which unions and employers agree to it.

Sampson said the city council took a step in the right direction by adding drug and alcohol awareness to the list of items to be explored, though his group would have preferred a more specific commitment to testing. “We don’t think that any comprehensive safety bill that doesn’t include drugs and alcohol is acceptable,” he said.

David J. Pfeffer, a partner at the law firm of Tarter, Krinsky and Drogin, said the matter is more complicated than most labor disputes because it can be a matter of life and death, especially with the nationwide opioid addiction crisis and looser marijuana laws across the country.

“If a lawyer has a couple cocktails at lunch with some clients, no one’s getting hurt, especially third parties,” he said. “When a construction worker is intoxicated through alcohol, marijuana or opioids, there’s a high risk of injury to people and property.”

Pfeffer said he would like to see the construction industry follow the example of the airline industry, which encourages employees to report pilots who they suspect are attempting to fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.


Whatever conclusions the task force reaches, Sampson hopes the recommendations apply to union and non-union projects equally.

He held up two recent worker fatalities as an example of the disparity. Both happened within hours of one another on September 21, one at Brookfield’s union-manned 1 Manhattan West site, the other at the Fortis Property Group’s open shop job at 1 Seaport.

Two men fell that day from 1 Manhattan West, with one later succumbing to his injuries. Weeks earlier, another worker had died there after a fall. Construction resumed within a few days.

Meanwhile, a partial stop work order is remains in effect at 1 Seaport where a construction worker also fell to his death September 21.

Although drugs and alcohol were not determined to be a factor in either incident and the Fortis project was previously cited for unsafe crane operation, Sampson said the juxtaposition is evidence of a double standard in the field.

“You would think a site that’s had two deaths would have a longer shut down than the site that’s had one,” he said. “That’s one of the frustrating things in our industry.”


LaBarbera is quick to highlight the distinction between drug and alcohol “testing,” which the ABC called for in May, and “awareness,” as the legislation suggests. He believes the topic of substance abuse is worthy of further examination, particularly amid the ongoing opioid crisis.

However, he remains leery of a widespread, mandatory testing system, even one that mirrors the optional policy the unions offer to their employers.

In addition to the challenge of policing a citywide system for worker harassment, LaBarbera said he opposes a testing policy that doesn’t also provide access to counseling and rehabilitation, which the trade unions offer to members and their families as part of their benefits packages. “Addiction is a problem, it’s a disease, it’s not something that someone should lose their future over,” LaBarbera said. “It’s something we as a society need to come together to address.”

Citing reports of substance abuse on worksites across the country, Sampson maintains that more drug testing is necessary. He believes the unions recognize this as well but are unwilling to cash that bargaining chip in without getting something significant in return. “If you look at the history of unions, they don’t give anything away for free,” he said.

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