This is a guest post from an actual union worker on their experience with on-the-job injuries, family, drugs, alcohol, and the pride that comes with working hard for a living.

I was union for over 10 years. I lived it and I’m pretty dang proud of how far it’s got me. There was never really any question about what I was going to do; it was like the family business. I was even known as “Little Whitaker” around the factory. I was fresh out of high school and still wet behind the ears when I first started.

I never realized the amount of safety training we’d have to go through. Dad never talked about that stuff at home. “Leave it at the plant. Don’t worry your mother.” In 2018, nonfatal incident rates in manufacturing were 3.4 per every 100 workers and were number four on the list behind agriculture, mining, and construction. But, hey, that was part of it.

Looking back, I wonder how many of those accidents were due to being high or hungover on the job. Or, on the flipside, how many people ended up addicted to pills because of an incident.

I had smoked a little dope with my buddies in high school but never anything real hard. The first time I threw out my back moving a pallet, go figure, I got put on Vicodin. I swear that’s the only way I made it through that week. What I didn’t know was repeated uses and prolonged exposure to these types of painkillers can lead to a higher incidence of abuse.

Addiction in the Heart of Detroit

I’ve never really cared for the term addiction. Considering how we live around here, seems more like a term made up by some psychologist in an ivory tower. I was just your average Joe, “livin’ the dream.” I grew up hunting, fishing, bonfires, and riding four-wheelers. After I graduated and started down at the local plant just like my dad, I knew almost everyone that worked there.

This country was built on the hard work of people like me and my family, especially in places like Detroit. Working on the farms, on the line, the auto industry, and others like it near built this country if you ask me. Just everyday life growing up in the Midwest and Michigan is no exception. There are generations of folks that have followed in their parents’ footsteps, just like I did.

I worked the same manufacturing jobs, got grease on my hands. I grabbed my bootstraps every morning because that’s what I was taught. You don’t need any help but family and God, but sometimes you reach a point where things seem to spin out of control for you and yours.

I grew up knowing that manufacturing was a good job. My dad was always able to put food on the table. We all knew that there were risks involved, but you do what you have to do. I had my fair share of injuries and with our insurance, getting pills was never very hard, something we didn’t think too much about at first. After all, if the doc was prescribing it, it must be good, right?

The Work Takes a Toll

The work was good but it takes a toll. I mean, I grew up baling hay and detasseling corn. It doesn’t get any harder than that. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled the same muscle – my doc calls them repetitive strain injuries. I was constantly bending and turning, working with heavy machinery and tools that took their toll. At thirty, we’d all joke as knees and backs popped when we got up from break. “God, I feel like I’m 50!” “Is this what getting old feels like?” “Hey, Johnny is it feeling like rain?”

Those injuries, feeling older than you are, they just came with the territory. On top of that, there were numerous injuries that occurred around the plant. Almost everyone I knew, myself included, had been on narcotic pain pills at one point or another. Whether it was because we picked something up wrong, or slipped and fell. Of course, it didn’t help that we sometimes shared the pills just for a little fun even when the ol’ injuries weren’t acting up.

All the guys had some kind of ache or pain. If we ran out, it wasn’t hard to come by something to tide you over till you could get in and see the doc again. We had a job to do, so sometimes we’d pitch in and help a friend out when they were having a rough day. I never thought it was a big deal.

Sharing Isn’t Always Caring

Of course, you’re not supposed to share medication, but everybody did it. Who wouldn’t help a friend out? It’s not like I could just take days off at a time, I had to make that money. I knew my buddies were also busting tail just trying to do their jobs, and I knew how hard those jobs were. I was just helping out a friend. I figured, “They have to go to work and I would hope that someone would help me out if I needed it,” you know? And I think that’s alright. But I did start to notice it getting out of hand at times.

Now, I’m not saying all this stuff is bad. Heck, helps us get by or just have a good time. But I do realize now that it can go too far, that sometimes you need to stop or slow down for your own sake or that of your family’s.

Every time we have another lost-time accident, we gotta go sit through another stupid safety meeting – like we didn’t know. I mean, it happens, and it comes with the territory, but it’s got me thinking about how many of those accidents involved someone being a little too high or a little too hungover on the job, you know?

Sometimes, I Can’t Stop Replaying It in My Head

We’ve all been there and seen the accidents, too. I was on the floor when Angie got pinned underneath the forklift. They had to bring out another one just to get her out from under. She just made one mistake and boom. We didn’t know whether she was going to make it for the longest time, then there was the talk about her possibly losing her foot. I can’t imagine being the guy driving.

Then there was Joe who lost three fingers on one hand. We always had a machine that got hung up in one spot and we got so used to it that we just started reaching underneath. Heck, everybody did it. It took too much time to lock the whole machine out for one part sitting right there. We all try to be a little more careful now.

I’ve seen these kinds of injuries affect the whole family, right down to the kids. We all do our best to pitch in. The ladies did some bake sales and we did some money drives for the ones that were going to be out for a while, but it still kinda gives me the chills walking past that machine, or that spot on the floor, or looking up at a family member and seeing those injuries all over again.

I didn’t want to admit that those accidents affected me. I don’t know how many times I’d crossed the floor where Angie had her accident, or bypassed the safety like Joe. I started drinking more, I mean, more than usual. At first just to help me sleep at night. I didn’t see it as a problem. I told myself I was lucky I wasn’t the one hurt. I told myself my dad had seen much worse before OSHA started really cracking down. I told myself everything was alright, and I took another drink.

I worried about my kids, too. Yes, it’s how we grew up and most of us take pride in surviving during the tough times, the hard times. We get up and rub some dirt on it and move on. We want to show our kids we’re proud of what we’ve carved out here and they should be too. But, at the same time, we see the broken homes, the struggle, the addictions that are landing our kids in jail or causing constant strife at home. We want something better for our kids.

Just Taking the Edge Off. Then the Edge Became Constant

I admit, we bring alcohol to everything, and sometimes a bit more than alcohol. It was at all our events from a backyard barbecue, to sporting events, and hobbies like fishing and hunting.

Alcohol was also my reward for a job well done. I felt like I deserved that ice-cold beer after a long day at work. And what’s more refreshing than a cold one after mowing the lawn on a hot summer day? When we always turn to alcohol as a source for pleasure or reward then it can become a problem. It became my problem.

It’s not so much the drinking, but what I’d do after a few too many. The fights with my spouse, the near misses at work, missing my kid’s game because I was too hungover to get up early.

Yeah, Sometimes I Drink Too Much. So, What?

I was drinking a lot more but it really didn’t seem like it was a lot more than the other guys. Getting together with the guys after work for some drinks or drinking at night during the game so sleep comes just a little easier. Saturday barbecues or watching the race on Sunday. It never really seemed like too much, until it was.

Even with daily drinking and multiple drinks, I didn’t realize that I might have a problem. After all, I was still holding down my job, putting in overtime, and supporting my family. I had it “under control.” Couldn’t possibly be an issue, right?

But I started to realize something as I looked around. It’s not just about whether or not you’re an alcoholic. Who can really say how much is too much? I even looked in that DSM thing and turns out there’s no specific amount, no medical test. It’s all about how use is affecting your life.

I realized it was getting harder to get it together in the morning. I was downing coffee until I felt normal again, but I’d still be fuzzy a lot of times. I was coming in with a hangover just about every day. I can’t tell you how many close calls I had. Getting dizzy on ladders and over machinery. Walking out in the aisles without paying attention. Forgetting, or not caring, about my PPE.

Slips, trips, and falls are some of the most common incidences, but it can also lead to more serious accidents. I’d see people all the time walking around with their faces in their phone, not paying attention to anything around them, or they’d get complacent trying to hurry through their workday tasks to relieve their hangover.

Just one time forgetting to Lockout/Tagout a machine and a death can occur. In our plant, there were forklifts with full loads running around restocking the line, with drivers that have a limited field of vision. One time forgetting to look in a high traffic area can spell disaster; just ask Angie. These are common accidents that occur in factory settings every year. Adding alcohol or drugs into that mix makes it even more dangerous.

Why Is It My Problem?

I’ve come to realize as I’ve gotten older that safety is everyone’s responsibility and it starts with the individual. One of the easiest things that we can control is ourselves. We have the power to control what we are putting in our bodies and what we are consuming. By refraining from using medication at work, or not showing up hungover, we can help to improve workplace safety starting with number one. And none of the guys I knew getting the big hours, the 60 to 100 hours a week, were much for using. That told me something.

I know my plant had drug and alcohol policies in place, posted in break rooms, and in the employee handbooks that we had to sign. The policies in place allowed drug testing in the event of an incident or injury. We just all avoided jobs where we’d be more likely to have to take one – can’t do that much damage on the floor.

In addition to drug and alcohol use being a safety concern, no one wants to lose their job or seniority over that baloney. There are often programs within the workplace where they will work with guys who are willing to get help.

What Can I Do?

When drinking or using a little too much is the norm, it can be hard to stop. When I did stop, all that stress that the beer or whatever was helping take the edge off hit me full in the face. As hard for me as it is to say this, sometimes a little help can go a long way. I’ve seen a couple of the guys who have cut back or stopped completely. Things seem to be better for them. Better health, better relationships with the kids, better focus on the job. So what options are out there?

Believe it or not, instead of hitting the bars after work, I started going to the gym. You’d think I got enough exercise working as hard as I do, but I guess it’s about a mix of cardio and weight training and all that.

I also joined some of the company leagues. It helped to have something to do besides work, eat, and sleep. I got to be real good friends with the guys on my team, even played high school ball with a few back in the day. It was great hanging out with some of the old crew.

I started thinking less about going home for that beer every night and thought more about our next game day or getting home and teaching the kids the ‘ol curveball that took us to State when I was pitching.

Finding Answers

If you are starting to notice that drinking or drug use is becoming more than usual, that you have trouble going without it, or that it’s causing too many problems in your life, it might be time to bite the bullet and ask for help, especially if you’ve tried to cut back or stop before and haven’t been able to.

The same goes for using prescription pills or other substances. If you should have been healed from an injury already, but find that you are still taking medication, or taking it for reasons other than for pain relief, it might be becoming a problem.

A lot of people don’t realize it, but if you use pain pills for too long, your brain and body stop wasting energy on healing or reducing the pain since the drug is already doing it for you. So, the pain actually seems worse when you stop. That first transition off meds is no joke, but it gets easier over time.

Abstaining from substances, finding hobbies and activities, and finding that sense of community away from drugs and alcohol can help, but sometimes it takes more than just willpower. With insurance covering more for treatment and policies like FMLA in place, it makes seeking treatment completely doable.

If you or a loved one has a substance use issue and needs more help, Skywood Recovery is here to help the working men and women of this great country. Call 269-280-4673 for a free and confidential phone call today. Help is here.