June 30, 2021

SINCE A PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY was declared five years ago, the construction industry has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, which has claimed 7,000 lives.

Five years after B.C.’s opioid overdose epidemic was declared a public health emergency, there is little reason to celebrate.

“Five years? That makes me want to cry right there,” said Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre coordinator Jud Martell of the suffering and death in the hard-hit construction industry. “How did we get five years into this thing?” Seven thousand people have died as a result of the opioid epidemic in the past five years. 2020 was the deadliest year, with 1,724 deaths. Almost 500 people have died in the first three months of 2021.

Some progress was being made, until COVID came along in early 2020 and made the situation even worse. Overdose deaths fell in 2019, then COVID disrupted cross-border drug networks, causing some suppliers to sell more toxic substances. COVID restrictions also drove users indoors into environments where they could use — and too often die — alone. “COVID has just taken the focus away from all these other things,” Martell said. “For this to be on the back burner again with all the mental health issues, even if we get a handle on it, it will take another 10 years to get people from hiding and doing drugs in their basement,” Martell said.

The numbers are frightening enough, but each number also represents a human life lost, a grieving family, friends and co-workers.

“They are all heartbreaking,” Martell said, recalling some of the lives lost. “I had an apprentice whose mother committed suicide. He was never the same after that. He finally killed himself on her anniversary. That was a tough one.”

Many times, the circumstances of death make it difficult to know if the overdose was the result of suicide or a bad drug supply. “I’ve had apprentices we don’t really know what happened.”

Combatting drug use is complicated, but Martell says many lives could be save if we could just clean up the drug supply and make sure users knew what they were using.

With traditional opioids being mixed with super powerful substitutes such as fentanyl and carfentanil, some recreational users are dying even before they can develop a drug habit. One Friday night poker game that turned tragic when someone brought out a bag of drugs mixed with something stronger than expected and a tradesperson died.

“It was for no better reason than he got a few granules more than somebody else out of that bag of toxic drug supply,” said Martell.

Fellow sheet metal worker Steve Davis has also seen the destruction of drug use in the trades. “Over the last three years, 12 people I have known personally in my life have overdosed or committed suicide,” said Davis, an organizer with the Sheet Metal Workers, Roofers and Production Workers Local 280.

Davis said drug use has been a problem for a long time, but that it is now more serious than ever, especially with the superpower synthetics drugs.

“With the borders being closed, everything out there is tainted,” Davis said. The unforgiving nature of the powerful drugs means it is more important than ever to reach out to fellow workers with mental health or drug use problems.

“In just over the last year, there have been six or seven of our members that I have supplied information and resources, such as the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan.” They have had varying degrees of success managing their drug use, but all of them are still alive.

“One person is in a 90-day treatment on his own. One of them is still battling, not yet back to work. And from what I understand, the others are back to work, but still dealing with issues and problems. Not using, but they still have an addiction problem, still going through counseling,” Davis said.

“One has tried to come back to work several times, has relapsed quite a few times, but he is still trying.”

Davis said it is critical that union members keep reaching out to help their sisters and brothers to let them know that they are never alone. “Communication and caring are the biggest things,” he said.

Ground Zero for the opioid crisis: Construction

Paddy Byrne is president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 38 (IUPAT DC 38) and director of training for the Finishing Trades Institute of B.C. He chokes up when he talks about the drug use in construction and the death of an apprentice just weeks earlier.

“We are probably Ground Zero to be quite honest. We are the highest percentage of any industry when it comes to opioid addictions and overdoses,” Byrne said. “We had one of our young glaziers earlier this year pass away from an opioid overdose. He was trying to get his life back together.”

The glazier relapsed. He went out to Tim Hortons, then went to the washroom in his parents’ home. He was found dead in the bathroom. No one goes through the Finishing Trades Institute without being told about the dangers of ignoring mental health or drug problems.

“We make it a point now of talking to all of our apprentices about this problem. Anytime that they come to the school, we give them a bit of indoctrination into the school. We also talk to them specifically about the issue of opioids and dealing with pain. And the resources that we can turn them onto.”

Naloxone kits for everyone

It is critical that workers realize they are not bad, or weak, if they ask for help. The stigma that goes with mental health problems and drug use has to be confronted. The Finishing Trades Institute is partnering with the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP) to teach workers how to recognize overdoses and how to use the Naloxone overdose kits.

“Every single apprentice that comes through our school will be given an opportunity to take the training, and is going to be given a kit to take home,” said Byrne. “We are actually going to be sending our trade reps out to the job sites where they can do toolbox talks and can do the training for the workers on site.” To save lives and careers, Byrne said, every construction worker in B.C. needs to have access to an overdose kit.

“The ambitious plan is to get a kit into every construction worker’s hands in the province. It doesn’t matter if you are union or non-union, we are going to try and save your life.”

IUPAT International has started a program called Helping Hands to try and get help to workers facing mental health and drug use issues. More than anything, workers need to know they are not alone, that help exists, and there are people ready to help them.

“You are not a weak person, you are not a bad person. You are a person with an illness and we want to help you get better,” Byrne said of the message they need workers to hear.

Help for Building Trades workers

CIRP has been helping workers with mental health and substance use problems for decades. The union and industry funded plan has helped about 1,200 workers since it was revamped in 2016, says executive director Vicky Waldron.

“We really do have a problem with mental health/substance use within our industry. It is disproportionate. It is higher than in other industries,” Waldron said.

A B.C. Coroners Service report found that some 55 per cent of workers’ overdoses in 2016 and 2017 were people employed in construction or transportation. There are a variety of factors.

  • Substance use is higher among young men.
  • Construction workers, who generally do not have paid sick days, have hard physical work and suffer more on-the-job injuries than many other occupations.
  • Construction workers are prescribed opioid pain killers to manage their symptoms more frequently than other occupations.
  • About 90 per cent of the workers who ask for help have suffered childhood trauma, and 70 per cent of them suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Construction remains a male-dominated industry, and men are less likely to talk about mental health issues or substance use problems because of the stigma associated with those problems.

Given the extreme danger in using current street drugs, Waldron said, it is urgent to offer anyone looking for help an intake appointment within 48 hours.

“That is super important. People are dying. We cannot have people waiting for weeks on end to get an appointment,” Waldron said. “It could be fatal for somebody, and that is not why we are here.”

An important part of getting a substance user into treatment is overcoming the stigma of drug use, and mental health challenges. “That plays a big part of it, because men are conditioned in our society to not talk about it, you are trained not to talk about your feelings. You are told to man up.”

If you are reading this article and you are struggling with substance use, the most important thing Waldron wants to convey is this: “We want to help, but we cannot help if you’re not alive. So you have got to take all the steps to protect yourself.” Waldron said people can get their drugs tested, they can frequent overdose prevention sites, and they can get themselves an overdose prevention kit and learn how to use it. Waldron becomes emotional when she recalls the tragic loss of one young man who came for help. He was trying to overcome his problems, and got himself the recommended Naloxone overdose kit. But he was so worried about a friend, who was also a user, he gave the kit to his friend the day before he died.

“I have got to tell you, in almost 20 years I have been in this field, I have never met anyone who was not a decent guy or a decent person, ever.”

What does help look like?

Once clients are stabilized, they and their counsellors then set up a 12-month treatment plan.

“You cannot expect anyone to work on their mental health or substance use issues if they don’t even have the basics, they don’t even have a roof over their head,” said Waldron.

One of the biggest challenges clients face is the pressure to return to work as soon as they start feeling better. The industry is short of workers, and many clients also have financial problems that pressure them into going back to work as soon as they can.

“About two-thirds of our clients will leave after about three months. The reason for that is we are stabilizing them. For the first time in a long time, they are able to function on a day-to-day basis.” That is when relapsing into substance use can become a larger risk.

“Often, their lives have come crashing down around them. They have not been able to pay bills. Their finances are a mess. So the draw to go back and start repairing some of that is very, very strong.”

Results are very good when the clients stay the entire 12 months and get a chance to work on any possible mental health issues associated with their substance use. More than anything, construction workers, their union leaders and their employers need to work to reduce the stigma that prevents so many of them from seeking the help they need to stay alive.

“It really is not easy to say there is a problem going on within construction. We really do have a problem with mental health/substance use within our industry. It is disproportionate. It is higher than in other industries.” They must be encouraged to open up, and to talk about their challenges.

“If you are wondering if you should seek help, then you probably should seek help.”

Visit CIRP online at constructionrehabplan.com

By David Hogben