First-hand accounts help VICA research drug abuse

Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | June 4, 2021

Soothing painful injuries, dealing with trauma, partying that escalates.

The Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) in B.C. released first-hand accounts from construction workers and employers about how workers got involved in drugs and why they struggled to seek help.

Of the 22 interviewed for the project, 11 had past or present experience of illicit drug use.

Of those with lived experience, three identified as women and eight as men.

The participants, who were interviewed under the condition of anonymity by the project team, ranged in age from their early 20s to their late 50s and worked in a wide range of positions within construction including day-labourers, apprentices, journeypeople, company owners, high level company management positions and management positions with organizations related to construction.

According to the report, cocaine and alcohol, and to a lesser extent party drugs like MDMA, were used or talked about openly but opioid use was heavily stigmatized.

Interviewees fall into profiles

VICA and its researchers found nearly all interviewees fell into at least one of four categories of drug users. 

Profile A started construction when they were young and began using drugs and alcohol for fun as part of a “work hard, play hard” mentality. However, in some cases the casual drug use grew into a larger problem if mental health issues arose, often from high stress, burnout or feeling overwhelmed. 

“It was just really really hard work, and pretty much everyone that I worked with there went out to the bar afterwards and drank and then the coke came out,” said one interviewee. “I don’t know what it was, it was almost like a lifestyle, right? You work hard and then you play hard.”

Profile B is someone who works in construction but sustained an injury and was prescribed opiates for pain management. But the medical use grew into substance abuse. The report noted that continued drug use was often fuelled by a strong desire to return to work, despite being in pain. 

“The drugs are everywhere,” said one interviewee. “Over the years certain parts of the industry are almost like proud of it. Like that’s just their supplement they take to do their work.”

Profile C is someone who experienced severe trauma and began using drugs to cope. The dual effect of trauma and substance abuse reduced their capacity to maintain regular employment and they joined the construction industry, often as a labourer, in order to have flexible low barrier work. 

Toxic masculinity

Rory Kulmala, CEO of VICA, explained some themes crossed all profiles. 

“Regardless of profile, there is a reluctance to seek help, particularly in the male demographic, for health, mental health or wellness in general,” he said, adding living up to ideas of masculinity caused many to internalize physical and mental pain. 

“They don’t want to be seen as weak,” said Kulmala. “I think it’s about working on dispelling the stigma and creating an environment where people can seek help in a safe way. We need to dispel the myth that employers don’t care and only want the job to get done.”

One interviewee described it as a toxic image of masculinity which compelled them to work through pain. 

“I was admired for my ability to grind out really tough situations, to jump in and take things on myself, and I was really proud of that,” they said. “And it was hard for me to show weakness and that just made me feel like I had to show up in my life wearing this mask of like ‘I’m good, I’m fine.’”

Next steps

The stakeholder engagement report will inform VICA’s harm reduction team as they work with Island Health’s overdose response team to implement the next three phases of the Tailgate Toolkit.

Phase two of the toolkit will be a training course for those in direct supervisory or frontline response positions which would cover recognizing substance use/impairment, mental health first aid, mental health, and substance use literacy with a focus on having effective and supportive conversations, a more thorough summary of services available and naloxone trainer training.

The group also intends to create construction-specific support groups.

Despite the multiple phases and ongoing development of the project, Kulmala urged workers and employers to not wait to reach out.

“We are already in a position to get these resources out,” said Kulmala. “If you need help, call us. Employers, do not wait for the reports. If you need help, call us.”

The association’s full report can be found here: https://bit.ly/2STouQP