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Discouraging Smoke Breaks at Work Among Construction Workers

By Heather Kerrigan | May 4, 2020

While tobacco use in the United States is generally trending downward, it remains high in the construction industry. Smoke breaks at work are part of the culture, and kicking the habit can be hard. Unions play an important role in encouraging members to quit through cessation programs, workplace policies and education campaigns. 

Smoking in the Construction Industry 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 9.3 million workers in the construction industry, more than a third use some type of tobacco product. Both workplace culture and an outdoor working environment with few or no smoking restrictions are at least partly to blame.

This high rate of tobacco use puts members at risk of serious health issues.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing 400,000 people prematurely each year. It can also result in chronic health issues like diabetes, stroke, heart disease, cancer and lung disease. Construction workers may be even more susceptible to these health problems because they're already exposed to airborne toxins on the job. For example, though smokers are 11 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, smokers who are also exposed to asbestos are 53 times more likely than a nonsmoker to have the same complications. 

However, even nonsmokers on a construction site are at risk. According to the CDC, 2.9 million workers are exposed to secondhand smoke in the construction industry, the highest number in any sector. Each year across all industries, 53,000 Americans are killed by a health problem caused by secondhand smoke.

Challenges to Addressing Tobacco Use 

Despite the health risks involved, construction workers are more likely to start smoking and less likely to quit than their counterparts in other industries, according to Health Education Research. There is limited evidence of the impact of union-based cessation programs, employer incentives and education campaigns on the rate of smoking. Often, these programs do not appropriately address the unique issues facing construction workers. For example, these workers are often under a large amount of stress, and many smokers report that tobacco use helps calm their nerves. Smoke breaks at work are consistent because there are few restrictions on tobacco use at most job sites. It's also common for workers to be scattered geographically and frequently move to different job sites, making it difficult to offer in-person cessation program at a specific construction site unless the program forces members to travel after already putting in long hours.

7 Strategies to Improve Anti-Tobacco Programs

Despite these difficulties, a well-planned smoking cessation program or other anti-tobacco campaign can help significantly reduce member smoking rates. A report from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that during the past 50 years, evidence-based tobacco control and prevention activities have prevented approximately 8 million premature deaths. 

To ensure your program is effective as possible:


  1.  Target construction. Focus only on construction workers rather than the wider union membership. This will allow you to develop messaging that addresses the concerns that affect these members the most.
  2. Go beyond smoking. Incorporate multiple forms of tobacco use into cessation programs, not just smoking. One in 10 construction workers uses more than a single type of tobacco product, according to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

  3. Keep programs voluntary. Make cessation programs easily available (meaning on or near a work site), but don't force them on members. They're more effective when members decide for themselves to quit.

  4. Make help accessible. Offer both individual and group cessation programs, and either cover all of the cost or a significant portion to make sure the program is affordable.

  5. Ground advice in data. Use the data you have on your members to target anti-smoking messaging and cessation program enrollment. Some studies suggest that workers are more receptive to campaigns focused on being there or setting a good example for their children, according to Health Education Research. 

  6. Aim to improve health. Incorporate information on overall health and safety into your cessation program, particularly as it relates to smoking.

  7. Consider workplaces. Work with employers to enforce smoke-free workplaces. Workers at such job sites are twice as likely to quit smoking as those employed somewhere without a no smoking policy, the CDC reports. 

Not every strategy will be effective for all members who use tobacco products. But with careful planning and targeted programming, unions can help members quit and improve their health for the future.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book, Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.