More than ten million Americans, including many Laborers, suffer from chronic pain.  When suffering, people seek various kinds of treatment including physical therapy, visiting with a chiropractor and even surgery.  Often, in conjunction with these kinds of treatments, people are also prescribed medication to help manage the pain.

Unfortunately, the very drugs that help people manage pain can lead to worse problems.  Although they initially begin using them legitimately for medical reasons, many people end up abusing prescription drugs.  Somewhere along the way, the drugs begin to take over their lives and become more important than anything else.

Another way in which prescription drugs are abused is through non-medical use.  In 2005, of the 1.4 million misuse or abuse visits to an emergency room, 27 percent involved the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, a 21 percent increase from 2004.  The increase in prescription drug abuse may be attributed to an increase in the number of prescriptions written, increased marketing to the public by the pharmaceutical industry, internet pharmacies, peer pressure and the misguided notion that, because doctors are increasing the number of prescriptions for these drugs, they must be safe for non-medical use as well.

Most Commonly Abused or Misused Prescription Medications

Although many prescription drugs can be abused, three classes are most commonly abused:

Opioids Also known as narcotic analgesics, opioids are most often prescribed to treat pain and are the most commonly abused prescription drugs.   Examples include morphine, codeine, OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol.  In the short term, these drugs block pain messages and cause drowsiness.  A large single dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death.  Long-term use leads to physical dependence and, in some cases, addiction.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants Commonly used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders, CNS depressants include tranquilizers, sedatives and benzodiazepines such as Valium, Librium and Xanax.  They slow down normal brain function and can cause a sleepy, uncoordinated feeling in the beginning of treatment.  Long-term use can lead to physical dependence and addiction.

Stimulants – Commonly used to treat the sleeping disorder narcolepsy and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these stimulants include Ritalin and Dexedrine.  These drugs, which can be addictive, enhance brain activity and increase alertness and energy.  They elevate blood pressure, heart rate and respiration.  Very high doses can lead to irregular heartbeat and high body temperature.

Role of Patients

Patients can take several steps to ensure they use prescription medications appropriately and prevent abuse.

  • Always follow medication directions carefully.
  • Be aware of potential interactions with other drugs.
  • Never stop taking a prescription drug or change the recommended dosage without first discussing with the prescribing physician.
  • Never use another person’s prescription and do not share yours with someone else, even if the other person is a family member.
  • Inform your prescribing physician about all prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and dietary and herbal supplements you are taking.
  • Know the drug’s effects on driving and other daily tasks.
  • Learn about the drug’s potential interactions with alcohol, other prescription medicines and over-the-counter medicines.

Drug Testing

Drug testing has become common within the construction industry.  Many prescription drugs are in the classes of drugs for which tests are likely to be given.  If a member has a prescription for a particular drug and is taking it appropriately, it is unlikely to be an issue with a drug test.  However, if tested members are using a legal prescription drug which was not prescribed for them or are not taking prescribed drugs as recommended, they will likely be subject to disciplinary action.

Even when taken appropriately, some prescription drugs can have side-effects that are unsafe on a construction site.  If you are taking such a drug, it is your responsibility to report this to your supervisor.  It is everyone’s job to keep worksites safe.  Knowing when you are not fit to work is part of maintaining a safe jobsite.

Assessing Prescription Drug Abuse

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s use of prescription medication, here are some questions to ask:

  • Have you ever felt the need to cut down on your use of prescription drugs?
  • Have you ever felt annoyed by remarks your friends or loved ones made about your use of prescription drugs?
  • Have you ever felt guilty or remorseful about your use of prescription drugs?
  • Have you ever used prescription drugs as a way to “get going” or to “calm down?”
  • Are you taking more of a drug than what has been prescribed for you?
  • Are you doctor shopping – going from doctor to doctor in search of prescriptions?
  • Are you lying about your prescription drug use when meeting with a new doctor?

If you have answered yes to even one of these questions, we suggest you speak with your doctor or a mental health professional about your concerns.


Prescription drug abuse, even if not to the point of addiction, may still be difficult to stop.  While many people succeed in stopping drug use, others need professional help.  Fortunately, there are many resources in the community and through LIUNA that can help.

Types of treatment resources include:

  • Laborers’ Member Assistance Programs (MAP), which are included in some health andwelfare plans
  • Self-help groups
  • Outpatient counseling
  • Day treatment programs
  • Residential programs

Your health care benefits may help cover some or all of these treatment costs.  Self-help groups are free and many community programs charge based on your ability to pay.

If you or anyone you know is abusing prescription drugs, contact the following organizations for information on where to go for help:

Prescription Drug Abuse Hotline
866-784-8911 (toll free); 8:30 am – 5:30pm PT

Narcotics Anonymous (NA World Services)
(818) 773-9999; 8:00am – 5:00pm PT

Alcoholics Anonymous
(212) 870-3400

The CSAT Drug Information, Treatment and Referral Hotline