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Helping Construction Workers Quit Tobacco

Companies who help employees kick the habit reduce costs and limit risks.

Smoking rates have been declining for decades, and yet tobacco use among construction workers remains high. More than one-third of all construction employees —34.3 percent — use some form of tobacco every day or some days, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Of that number:

  • 23.4 percent smoke cigarettes
  • 7.9 percent use other combustible tobacco products
  • 7.8 percent use smokeless tobacco products (chewing tobacco, snuff, dips, etc.)
  • 4.2 percent use e-cigarettes
  • 7 percent use more than two tobacco products

Tobacco use is more common in construction than in almost any other industry, the study found. Only workers in installation, maintenance and repair occupations report higher usage.

According to the study, young males, workers living below the federal poverty level and workers with no health insurance are more likely to use tobacco. Overall, smoking rates are highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast.

Smokers put a strain on a construction company’s bottom line. The CDC reports that smoking-related illnesses in the United States cost more than $300 billion each year, including more than $156 billion in lost productivity. (That includes lost productivity due to secondhand smoke exposure.) Tobacco use increases absenteeism while decreasing productivity.

There’s also a very real risk of smoking workers causing property damage. On December 3, 2016, construction crews renovating a home in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, accidentally touched off a blaze with a cigarette or a match. The 10-alarm fire spread quickly, destroying the homes of 30 people and causing an estimated $10 to $15 million in damages.

So helping your workers kick the tobacco habit could benefit both them and you. You’ll both save money, and they’ll improve their health as well.

Most of your employees who use tobacco would probably like to stop; a CDC study found that almost 70 percent of smokers want to quit. Although they may have to try several times before they finally break the habit, they can be successful. About 1.3 million Americans stop smoking each year.

You’re probably already providing some kind of tobacco cessation program to your employees if you’re offering them health care coverage. (The Affordable Care Act requires you to offer it as a preventive service.) These programs have to include:

  • Four sessions of counseling (individual, group and/or phone)
  • 90 days of all FDA-approved smoking cessation medications
  • 2 quit attempts per year
  • No prior authorization for treatments.

You should also consider making your offices and jobsites smoke-free. U.S., European and Canadian studies have all found that employees who work in places where smoking is banned are nearly twice as likely to stop smoking than those who work where smoking is permitted.

Finally, consider offering cash rewards. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that cash incentives increased the likelihood that smokers would quit.

Researchers at the University of Miami are taking a novel approach to helping Hispanic construction workers stop smoking. (Hispanic construction workers generally have higher smoking and lower cessation rates than other groups.) The researchers will work with 126 study participants at 15 different construction sites, providing one culturally adapted stop-smoking session at a lunch truck, then following up with two brief counseling sessions via phone and the provision of up to six weeks of nicotine replacement therapy.

“Apart from smoking, construction workers are frequently exposed to a wide range of workplace hazards, including toxins, such as carbon monoxide, air pollutants, and fibers, many of which interact with smoking to increase workers’ risk for lung cancer and chronic lung disease,” said David J. Lee, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator. “But construction workers are less likely than other workers to see a health care provider for preventive services.”

 The study began in April and will end in November 2018.


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.



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