Fentanyl overdose – Just whose issue is it anyhow?

If it’s true that construction workers are more susceptible to drug use, addiction, and overdose, then construction employers must act. Lives are at stake.

In August, a Fraser Health Authority (FHA) report on the serious and growing problem of drug overdoses in BC stated that many overdose victims worked in the construction industry. FHA then held a workshop with construction industry representatives to learn more about the prevalence of drug use and overdose among construction workers. Over the course of the workshop, participants put together some next steps, including an awareness program. I hope these actions will be adopted by the construction community and make a difference to those who might be at risk.In August, a Fraser Health Authority (FHA) report on the serious and growing problem of drug overdoses in BC stated that many overdose victims worked in the construction industry. FHA then held a workshop with construction industry representatives to learn more about the prevalence of drug use and overdose among construction workers. Over the course of the workshop, participants put together some next steps, including an awareness program. I hope these actions will be adopted by the construction community and make a difference to those who might be at risk.

Overdose crisis’s link to construction

But the part I want to focus on here is the ‘Why construction?’ question. In August, BCCA’s president Chris Atchison wrote a letter to the Globe & Mail in response that newspaper’s article covering FHA’s announcement. Chris rightly questioned why the trades were highlighted without supporting evidence that construction is overrepresented among overdose victims. I shared Chris’s curiosity so I asked FHA medical health officer Dr. Aamir Bharmal that question.

Dr. Bharmal responded that an in-depth review of the charts of all men (90 in total) in the FHA region who were admitted to hospital following an overdose, revealed past work experience in construction. Some specific examples of jobs of men who had ‘serious residential overdose events’ were listed as follows: carpenter, plumber, roofer, labourer, millwright, foreman, heavy equipment operator, pipefitter, mechanic.  It’s pretty clear that these are trades or trades occupations. FHA also noted from medical charts that there were a number of men who were classified only as ‘working in construction,’ without more detail on their specific jobs.

We need data from within our industry

Since BC’s coroner service does not routinely collect information on occupation, that office does not offer a breakdown by specific occupation for overdose-related deaths. However FHA went public with the construction link based on its analysis on all overdoses that have occurred in the region (over 45,000 Emergency visits) and confirmed its findings with a number of focus groups and peer consultations in the community. It’s possible that these victims fell into categories other than the skilled, certified tradespeople that make up most of the mechanical contracting industry, but without outside confirmation of this, we need to err on the side of caution and look to our own experiences.

So returning to the question, ‘Why construction,’ we in the construction industry should seek answers.   The workshop identified some characteristics of the construction industry and its workers that might lead to drug use, such as the fact that construction work causes injuries. Injury can lead to chronic pain and pain management that includes the use of drugs, legal or illegal.

Another issue in construction is that since workers turn over regularly on a jobsite, forming close relationships with fellow employees is difficult, making construction work isolating and solitary. A predominantly male work environment might reinforce stereotypical macho behaviour and the male tendency to not ask for help.

We are committed to our workers

Construction is an industry where intervention into employees’ personal life doesn’t happen often so when it does, it feels uncomfortable. However, if it’s true that construction workers are more susceptible to drug use, addiction, and overdose, then construction employers must act. Lives are at stake.The FHA workshop began to outline some actions to combat this crisis and Fraser Health is prepared to work with industry to develop and deliver programs that target at-risk individuals. Industry employers should bring some resources to the table to support its employees – the life-blood of any business. MCABC is here to help so let’s plan to work together to ensure employees in the mechanical trades don’t end up dead from a drug overdose.

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