As of the writing of this article, we are deep in the grip of winter. With the holidays behind us, scant daylight and work in sub-freezing weather can lead to short tempers and bad moods. Add any other stressors (lack of money, marital problems, etc.) to this and things can go bad fast. We could lose focus and someone could get hurt.

These winter doldrums even have a clinical name: seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. Some believe it stems from lack of sunlight exposure. We work outside. However, frigid temperatures and safety gear often limit our bodies’ exposure to sunlight.

 In drilling, an inherently dangerous profession, “minor” injuries and muscle strains are commonplace. Considering the time of year, the chance climbs that someone could be muddling through or even disengaged on the job. As our industry struggles to attract people, the people we do have face more and more stress to keep up. Add to this a pandemic that may limit our employees' ability to see loved ones, or worse they may have lost loved ones. We could have a workforce hurting mentally, physically or both — and we may not know anything is wrong because drillers do not like to talk about feelings or show weakness.

When confronted with pain, either mental or physical, people just want the pain to lessen or stop. One of two things must happen: We either need to heal so the pain goes away, or find a way to lessen the pain. For physical pain, we could visit a doctor. Much of the time, there’s not a whole lot they can do to speed the healing process. Some folks can sit at home but, for most drillers, that is not an option. We either suffer, or have the doctor prescribe something to help ease the pain. Often, that something means prescription opioid painkillers.

The United Sates in 2020 averaged 43.3 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons. This rate has fallen from an all-time high of 81.2 in 2012 as doctors try to find alternative methods. Still, in 2020, 3.6% of U.S. counties saw enough opioid prescriptions dispensed for every person in the county to have one. America is in a crisis.

Opioids are extremely habit forming, which means doctors issue only short-term prescriptions. This can lead those in recurring pain to find a replacement wherever they can. Overdose deaths in 2020 for the first time climbed over 100,000 people in the U.S. Overdose deaths specifically from opioids increased to 75,673 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, up from 56,064 the year before — a 35% increase. So, the number of opioid prescriptions written per 100 people has come down yet the death rate from overdoses has gone up. Why?

The recent years’ rise in opioid deaths seems linked to fentanyl, an extremely dangerous opioid now common in the U.S. illicit drug market (along with increased isolation due to the pandemic). Three-fifths of opioid deaths nationwide trace back to fentanyl. As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can prove lethal. A recent report of counterfeit pain medications issued by the DEA found 26% of counterfeits to have a level a fentanyl above 2 milligrams.

Once we know someone has been injured and received pain meds in order to help them get over their injury, we must remain vigilant. Prepare to have difficult conversations with them to monitor the possibility they could use some help. The substance abuse and mental health services administration has a helpline at 800-662-4357 for substance abuse and mental disorder/suicide prevention. A suicide occurs in the U.S. every 12 minutes, and opioid abuse is associated with a 75% increase in the likeliness of a suicide attempt.

The culture of the self-reliant, tough-guy driller that pushes through and does not complain makes these conversations difficult.

So what do we do as employers, colleagues and mentors? Start a conversation with the person you think may be at risk. Everyone in our workforce has their own issues and difficulties. We should try to connect with them on a personal level to the best of our abilities. I suspect many reading this are thinking, I don't really want to talk about my feelings and personal life. How can I talk about the feelings and personal issues of other people? The problem is, we don’t know something is happening unless we have a conversation about it.

 If you suspect someone has an issue, ask direct questions while remaining compassionate and understanding about their situation. Make sure they feel you’re not judging them and truly listening to their responses. Listening to what they have to say can go a long way toward them trusting that you have their best interests in mind. Point them to a qualified resource for professional help and guidance, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 800-662-4357, or a qualified treatment facility in your area.

 The culture of the self-reliant, tough-guy driller that pushes through and does not complain makes these conversations difficult. In the U.S., males between 45 and 54 years of age have the highest rate for suicide. Expanding that range just a bit, men between 45 and 64 years of age have highest likelihood for opioid addiction. The overlap between those two statistics and the demographics of the construction industry make having these difficult conversations of utmost importance.

On the upside if you start one of these difficult conversations and there turns out to be no substance abuse or mental health issues, you’ve just connected on a greater personal level with a member of your crew (after maybe some awkwardness). This is a good thing.

Until next month, stay safe happy and healthy and keep turning to the right.