View From Ottawa – By Arlene Dunn – Chief Executive Officer for Canada’s Building Trades Unions
The opioid dependency epidemic affects a disproportionate number of construction workers across Canada; that number is even more pronounced in the province of British Columbia, where it has been called a “blood bath” and is not expected to run its course anytime soon. The Canadian government has declared the opioid epidemic to be a public health and human rights issue, in the same category as Hep C, HIV and suicide. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports more than 9,000 Canadians died from overdose deaths between January 2016 and June 2018. In B.C. alone, 1,489 people died of illicit opioid overdose in 2018. That’s more than four people a day. Roughly three-quarters of all opioid overdose deaths in Canada are men, with the highest percentage between the ages of 30 and 39.
The nature of our work – hard, physical labour – takes its toll on the body. The construction industry is cyclical; you take the job opportunities when they arise. The life of a project may be short, so you work as much as you can for the short term because you aren’t sure when the next job will come. That puts our members at higher risk for injury, and it’s the resulting pain management that creates an opportunity for opioids to come into the picture.
Opioids – like fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone and hydromorphone – are medications that can help relieve pain. Opioids were not created to be used for chronic pain yet they continue to be prescribed and are highly addictive. Unlike some other medications, opioids affect your mind, mood and mental processes and can induce euphoria, or the feeling of being “high.”
This creates the potential for them to be used improperly, including using opioids that are not prescribed or used in a way not intended or instructed by your doctor. When people start using drugs – or alcohol – regularly despite continued negative consequences, it can lead to substance dependency. Substance dependency can happen to anyone; no one is immune. People need to understand that this is a serious medical condition that requires treatment by a health-care provider. Being afraid to ask for help or not even realizing you are substance dependent is creating this larger, systemic issue affecting people from all walks of life and, from many different industries.
Canada’s Building Trades Unions represents roughly 500,000 skilled tradespeople across this country and we are tackling the opioid crisis head-on. We’ve partnered with Health Canada to remove stigma, create awareness and educate our members and the public about the dangers of opioids and the importance of being able to talk about substance dependency. We want to ensure that all members know how to approach their family doctors, pain clinics or emergency room physicians and talk about alternative pain management medication and therapies.
We are providing our members with the educational tools they need to self-advocate, to be aware of the dangers associated with the prolonged use of opioids.
Experts agree that fixing the opioid epidemic will take a combination of solutions. For our part, Canada’s Building Trades Unions will continue to exercise the greatest degree of care and seek out the most beneficial information to help our members and their loved ones understand, talk about and avoid becoming one of the statistics associated with this crisis. We will encourage them to seek help through their local union’s employee family assistance plan and we will continue to work tirelessly to make our industry a safe and healthy place to work.
For more information, visit Canada.ca/Opioids. We all need to work together to end the opioid addiction epidemic.