Opioid overdose crisis impacting construction workforce

Troy Shantz

Stress from pandemic shutdowns and easy access to prescription painkillers have fuelled an opioid overdose crisis in the construction industry workforce, local officials say.

Some 2,500 Ontarians died of drug overdoses last year, a 60% increase from 2019. And of the victims who were employed, 30% were construction workers – by a wide margin the industry most impacted, according to a recent report from the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, and Public Health Ontario.

Though local numbers aren’t available, union leaders confirm they’re taking steps to address what is a real and growing problem.

“These tragic stats are staggering,” said Jason McMichael, president of the Sarnia and District Labour Council.

McMichael, who is also community relations head for LiUNA Local 1089, said his union has increased benefits to include more addiction services and withdrawal management for members.

But an industry culture that eschews appearing weak or vulnerable is a barrier for some workers struggling with addiction, said John Swart, head of the Sarnia-Lambton Building and Construction Trades Council.

“The hardest thing is for workers to admit they have a problem,” said Swart, who is also the business manager for the local insulators union.

“But it’s the culture out there… nobody wants to rat out their brothers and sisters. That’s the time when you should bring it up to somebody.”

Counselling and access to a treatment centre near Bracebridge, Ont. are available, but only after the worker confides in a business manager, Swart explained.

For privacy reasons, they can seek treatment programs through business managers of locals in other cities, and can call a 1-800 number for help.

“I know every union in town here is trying their hardest to look after the ones in need,” he said.

Officials say the rise in drug overdoses has been driven by the pandemic’s impact on the construction workforce and easy access to powerful opioids.

Scott Archer, business agent with the UA 663 plumbers, pipefitters and welders union, said many addictions begin with an injury.

“Doctors were prescribing (Percocet) and (Oxycodone) like it was going out of style. They’d be hooked on them before they knew what was going on and it has kind of exploded from there.”

The union screens new hires for pre-existing addictions.

“We’ve had some of those, and we’ve bent over backwards to help them,” he said. “But you can only help someone as much as they want to help themselves.”

All local unions contacted said they have resources in place to help and are stepping up training and education.

For example, staff at Sarnia Local 1256 Carpenters union recently completed a two-day mental health first aid course that included identifying the early signs of addiction, said business manager Bob Schenck.

Swart said union committees are explaining the benefits of non-opiate painkillers, such CBD, which is now covered through most union benefit plans.

Most job sites also require drug screening of workers before they can work there, and post-incident testing is common, he added.

The Ontario Construction Association recently launched a campaign calling for more government support and urging workers to get help.

“With a public health crisis manifesting itself in a 60% increase in deaths in one year, there was never a better time to stop using hard drugs if at all possible,” it said.