Men working in construction are still at the most risk of dying from an opioid overdose, but a top British Columbia medical official sees some progress from government and industry stakeholders.
Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health vice-president, public health and chief medical officer, recently informed Vancouver’s new city council of statistics from a BC Coroners Service report titled, Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in BC – Finding of Coroners’ Investigations, which stated out of 872 deaths, 44 per cent of those individuals were employed at time of death. Of that group, 55 per cent worked in the trades and transport.21
In September alone, 128 people died of suspected drug overdoses. The study also noted fentanyl was by far the leading substance causing illicit drug overdose deaths with the drug accounting for 77 per cent of all such overdoses from 2016 to 2018.
Despite stereotypes of the homeless population being the most afflicted by drug overdose deaths, according to the BC Coroners Service, the majority of those who overdosed lived in private residences, with 54 per cent living in Vancouver Coastal Health’s area and 74 to 82 per cent in other health authorities. Only 13 per cent of people in the study cohort were living in assisted or social housing, and only nine per cent were homeless.
Statistics Canada also released a report on Nov. 15 detailing the high number of overdose deaths among men between 25 and 54 who work in the trades. The study looked at the dramatic rise in opioid related deaths, which more than doubled from 293 deaths in 2011 to 693 deaths in 2016.
Daly said the numbers have spurred both government and industry to take action.
“We don’t know the causes, and can only speculate, but as a result of some of these findings, the Overdose Emergency Response Centre of B.C. convened a trades roundtable,” Daly said.
Judy Darcy, the provincial minister of mental health and addictions, opened the province’s first industry roundtable on Aug. 27 where government, union representatives and construction industry leaders came together to address the danger of opioid addiction in the trades.
“The data was presented to them and the purpose of the roundtable was how to address this problem. As a result, there’s now a trades steering committee that’s starting to meet,” Daly said.
“The focus is on what action can be taken, including education for those training to work and those on worksites already. That applies not just to workers, but employers as well.”
Education, tools for people at risk and connecting those who need care with resources are all ways to address the problem, Daly said, along with training in harm reduction, such as teaching people onsite how to administer Naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effect of opioid overdoes.
Reluctance of those suffering to admit there is a problem, along with societal stigma around substance abuse keep users from seeking help or admitting their addiction to employers, Daly said.
“In the trades, people are concerned about losing their jobs. We want to be sure employers will support staff who need treatment and there’s a real commitment from industry to do that,” she said.
Daly added the male-dominated nature of the trades also contributes to less workers reaching out for treatment before it’s too late.
“Men often have less contact generally with the health care system than women,” she added, which carries over to a reluctance to admit to substance abuse and addiction.
In a previous Journal of Commerce article, BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson pointed to the higher rates of injury in construction as one of the reasons for opioid use.
“In the construction industry, there’s a higher rate of injury than in other industries and doctors are too quick to prescribe a person medication when there could be other options. Some people are quick to find addiction, and once on the drug, they’ll get a fix any way they can,” Sigurdson said.