October 6, 2022

THE OPIOID CRISIS has taken an especially hard toll on the building and construction industry, and it is likely that everyone in the industry knows someone who has been affected by the crisis.

“It’s widely acknowledged, and the numbers show, that the construction industry has been absolutely ravaged by substance use and overdose deaths,” said Vicky Waldron, executive director of the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP). The numbers show that 55 per cent of all the people who have died in the opioid epidemic are construction workers, a number that has increased from 33 per cent five years ago, she said.

Waldron says the reason for these high numbers is not simple. However, stigma within the industry is one of the overarching issues that prevents people from getting help. According to CIRP’s own research, people report they are afraid of losing their jobs if they come forward with substance use issues, as they may be seen as less competent or productive.

Fortunately, increased awareness about mental health and substance use has contributed to reducing the stigma that has been a barrier to people getting help. And for BCBT members, support is available. “We’re here and ready to help with substance use and mental health issues,” said Waldron. Treatment services are available for anyone, whether they are simply wondering if they have a problem, or whether they are a family member of someone who is struggling, she said.

Members have access to services ranging from online counseling to residential treatment. Services are free and confidential, and members have access to critical resources without having to worry about the impact on their employment.

“We recognize that substance use doesn’t happen in isolation,” said Waldron. “We also recognize that you don’t have to be living locally in order to access that help,” she said. “Even if a person lives in Trail, or Kitimat, or even Abbotsford— where you can’t just pop into our office-—you can access our services through Telehealth services.” And a new CIRP app,which was developed especially for construction workers, allows members to access life-saving emergency supports and information in the palm of the hand.

All services are aimed at reducing the barriers that members of the building and construction trades might face in accessing potentially life-saving supports. Through their partnership with CIRP, construction union locals like Sheet Metal Workers’, Roofers and Production Workers’ (SMART) Local 280, are also working to reduce stigma and to bring the numbers of those affected by the crisis, down.

“We’ve really tried to build a culture to reduce stigma,” said Jud Martell, training coordinator for the Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre Society in Surrey. As part of their apprenticeship training orientation, members are provided a stress management workshop by CIRP in Level 1 and again in their final year of training.

Martell said the training centre has posted emergency contact information throughout the facility that is easy to access, and private. “Anyone who needs help can contact the union and will be connected with confidential support services,” he said.

“Substance use is not the person’s fault,” said Martell. A problem that might start with pain management can quickly get beyond a person’s ability to manage it, he said. He said there is also the poisoned drug supply, which the industry hasn’t really dealt with before, noting, “it’s different from the ’80s when drugs weren’t killing us on the weekend.” Now, there’s a mask of embarrassment, something that’s created a perfect storm where people tend to be alone when they use, he said, and it’s imperative that action is taken to break the silence.

It’s why the local has offered naloxone training to their staff and members. The CIRP “Kit in Every Hand” initiative is designed to give all construction trade workers the ability to use a naloxone kit to reverse a potentially deadly opioid overdose. Some members have already used these kits to save a life, and anyone can take the trainer training, which is available online. (see below for more information).

We are five years into the medical health crisis, said Martell, and it’s important that locals do what they can to provide information and ongoing supports. He said it’s difficult to see the names of younger members who’ve died of overdose begin to appear on the union’s records. Martell said he would like to see mental health and substance use issues treated like any other kind of health and  safety issue on the job.

Waldron said that CIRP will come into the workplace and provide any kind of substance use or mental health training needed. “Prevention is really important, we never want to wait for a substance use issue to happen,” she said.

“What a great partnership to have in this struggle to address this issue,” said Martell.

CIRP provides free online “train-the-trainer” training on naloxone and overdose prevention for members of BCBT on the first Tuesday of every month from 5 to 6 p.m. Call 604-521-8611 for more information.

By Megan Terepocki