Opioid epidemic still plagues trades during COVID-19 storm

Journal of Commerce | Warren Frey | June 25, 2020

In a world already consumed by a global pandemic, an old foe has gathered new strength.

While COVID-19 has affected the entire world, the opioid epidemic continues to exact a toll on British Columbia, Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan executive director Vicky Waldron said during a recent online British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance webinar.

“The epidemic we have going on has been raging for four years. A lot of people don’t realize just how long this has been going on and sometimes people may think because it hasn’t been in the news cycle recently it’s finished but it’s not,” Waldron said.

Overdose rates have stayed steady for decades but in 2012 there was a sharp spike in deaths due to contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl, she said.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the entire population to self-isolate, but this runs counter to effective management of opioid addiction and may have resulted in further overdoses, she said.

British Columbia saw 170 deaths in May which, at the time, eclipsed the total number of deaths from COVID-19.

“The guidance we give is if you’re going to use, use in pairs. When you use in pairs, one person would use, the other watches over them to see they’re alright, then they use,” Waldron said.  “The advice we give with COVID is the complete opposite of the advice we’d give for staying safe with the opioid epidemic. That is isolate, do not go near other people, stay home and do not go out.”

The opioid epidemic has disproportionately affected the construction industry, she added, citing the 2018 B.C. coroners’ report which stated over half of overdose deaths were individuals who worked in trades and transport. Of those who died, over half had sought out help for issues with pain. 

“This isn’t a jurisdictional issue where construction is showing a correlation with the opioid epidemic just in B.C., this is actually a construction issue and that’s not always an easy thing for people to hear. It’s coming out of B.C., Alberta, Canada as a whole, the U.K., all parts of America. We’re all seeing the same thing, which is that if you’re a construction worker you’re significantly more likely to die in the opioid epidemic,” Waldron said.

The two factors causing this phenomenon are a much higher injury rate in construction and a culture that emphasizes getting back to work quickly after an injury.

“The injury rate for the construction industry is 77 per cent higher than in other industries which isn’t surprising given the nature of the work you do. However, with that we have this culture where we want people to get back to work quickly,” she said. “Because of the shortages of being able to find people within the industry coupled with the injury rate we need people back on site.

“When you have an injury, it’s a long slow process to healing, unless you take a pill. You take an opioid and it’s super effective at masking pain, but that’s all it does. It’s no repairing anything, it’s just shutting down the pain centres,” she added.

Workers can get back to work but their injuries aren’t healing and are being aggravated.

Another issue is the disproportionate number of men in the industry. There is a significant correlation between substance abuse and mental health, but men typically do not want to talk about their emotions which keeps them from reaching out to seek help with addiction and other issues.

Waldron cautioned there’s also a stigma attached to substance abuse that keeps workers from admitting they have a problem.

“In 2020, it breaks my heart, but it’s still seen as a moral issue, that there’s a failing in you as a person and that’s why you have substance abuse issues,” she said. “It’s so far from a moral issue, it’s a biological issue and a physiological issue, so maybe do some education around mental health.”

There is also a perception in construction that employers don’t care, “and I’ve not heard one employer say they don’t care. What I do hear is employers saying, ‘I care but I’m so frightened to make the situation worse and I don’t know what to do,” she added. “As an organization, if you can say you do care and here’s strategy and we want to look after our employees, they will be more likely to come forward.”