Five years after British Columbia’s opioid overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency, there is little reason to celebrate.
“Five years? That makes me want to cry right there,” said Jud Martell, co-ordinator of the Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre, noting the construction industry has been hit particularly hard by the crisis. “How did we get five years into this thing?”
Since 2016, 7,000 people have died as a result of the toxic drug epidemic in B.C. The deadliest year so far was 2020, with 1,726 fatalities.
The number of overdose deaths began falling in 2019, but when COVID-19 landed in early 2020 the situation grew worse. Border closures disrupted U.S.-Canada illicit drug networks, causing suppliers to sell more toxic substances. COVID-19 restrictions also drove drug users indoors and alone — where they often died.
And 2021 is on track to be even worse. Nearly 700 people have died in the first four months of 2021, 64 per cent more than the 390 deaths recorded in the same period last year.
Each fatality represents a human life lost and leaves behind a host of grieving loved ones, friends and co-workers. Many times, the circumstances make it difficult to determine if the overdose was the result of suicide or a poisoned drug supply.
“They are all heartbreaking,” Martell said.
Martell believes many lives could be saved if the government would make meaningful changes around providing a safe supply. While the province is seeking an exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs, critics say it’s too little, too late.
With opioids being mixed with powerful substitutes such as fentanyl and carfentanil, some recreational users are dying before they even develop a drug habit.
Martell knows of one Friday night poker game that turned tragic when someone brought out a bag of drugs mixed with something stronger than expected. 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 drugs,” said Martell.
Fellow sheet metal worker Steve Davis has also seen the impact.
“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. “It’s insane.”
Davis said substance use in the construction industry has been a problem for a long time, but it is now more serious than ever.
“Everything out there is tainted,” Davis said. He says it is more important than ever to reach out to workers who are suffering.
“Just over the last year, there have been six or seven of our members that I have supplied with information and resources,” Davis said, adding that although the members have had varying degrees of success managing their drug use, all of them are still alive.
It is critical that union members keep reaching out to help their sisters and brothers and let them know that they are never alone, Davis says. “Communication and caring are the biggest things.”
Paddy Byrne, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 38 and director of training for the Finishing Trades Institute of BC, has a blunt assessment of what’s going on in construction right now.
“We are probably ground zero, to be quite honest. We have the highest percentage of any industry when it comes to opioid addictions and overdoses,” Byrne said.
He chokes up when he talks about the recent death of an apprentice, a young glazier who was trying to get his life back together.
The glazier relapsed at his parents’ home. He was found dead in the bathroom.
Byrne says no one goes through the Finishing Trades Institute without being told about the dangers of ignoring mental health or substance use problems.
“We make it a point now of talking to all of our apprentices about this. We also talk to them specifically about the issue of opioids and dealing with pain — and the resources that we can turn them onto,” Byrne said, adding it is critical that workers realize they are not weak if they ask for help.
In addition to addressing stigma, Byrne believes every construction worker in B.C. needs to have access to a naloxone overdose kit.
To that end, the institute is partnering with the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan to teach workers how to recognize overdoses and how to use the 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 going to be sending our trade reps out to the job sites where they can do ‘toolbox talks’ and can train workers on site.”
The plan is to get a naloxone kit into every construction worker’s hands in the province, union and non-union.
IUPAT International has started a program called Helping Hand to get help to workers facing mental health and substance use issues. More than anything, Byrne says workers need to know they are not alone and that help exists.
“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.
The Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan has been supporting workers with mental illness and addictions for decades. Since it was revamped in 2016, the union- and industry-funded program has helped about 1,200 people, says program 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 BC Coroners Service report found that approximately 55 per cent of worker overdoses in 2016 and 2017 were people employed in construction or transportation. There are a variety of contributing factors:
- Construction workers, who generally do not have paid sick days, perform hard physical work and suffer more on-the-job injuries than many other occupations;
- Construction workers are prescribed opioid painkillers to manage their symptoms more frequently than other occupations;
- Construction remains a male-dominated industry and men are less likely to talk about mental health issues or substance use problems because of stigma;
- Substance use is higher among young men.
“We have to have honest conversations about what is going on, but it’s not easy,” Waldron said. “Men are conditioned in our society to not talk about your feelings. You are told to man up.”
Waldron says people who are using can get their drugs tested, go to supervised consumption sites and get themselves an overdose prevention kit and learn how to use it.
Given the extreme danger in using current street drugs, Waldron says 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.”
Once clients with the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan access treatment and are stabilized, they and their counsellors set up a 12-month plan for moving forward.
“You cannot expect anyone to work on their mental health or substance use issues if they don’t even have the basics, don’t even have a roof over their head,” said Waldron.
With the construction industry experiencing a labour shortage, one of the biggest challenges clients face is the pressure to return to work as soon as they start feeling better. About two-thirds of the industry rehab plan clients will leave after about three months.
However, that’s when relapsing becomes a larger risk, Waldron says. “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 improve drastically when the clients stay the entire 12 months and work on any concurrent mental health issues. They must be encouraged to open up and talk about their challenges, says Waldron.
The key first step is reaching out. “If you are wondering if you should seek help, then you probably should.”
The Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan is available here.