Constructions workers in Western Canada heavily represented in overdose deaths

Oct 6, 2021

According to the results of recent large-scale studies, construction workers are heavily represented in overdose deaths across Western Canada and the U.S.

An analysis of 872 overdose deaths carried out by the BC Coroners Service showed that 44% of the individuals were employed at the time of death and of those, 55% were employed in the trades and transport industry. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of these overdose deaths were men aged in their 30s and 40s using drugs alone.

Similarly, according to a report released by the Province of Alberta, trades, transport and equipment operators accounted for 53% of drug overdose deaths among individuals who were employed.

In the U.S., construction workers were also heavily represented in overdose deaths. A study performed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that construction occupations had the highest proportional mortality rates of deaths from both heroin and prescription opioids after examining unintentional or undetermined overdose deaths across 26 occupation groups.

Numerous health experts have pointed to toxic drug supply as one of the main reasons for increasing numbers of opioid-related deaths across North America. “I think in days of old you thought that buying illicit substances, you would get what you thought you were getting,” explained Dr. Sandra Allison, a medical health officer for Island Health, B.C.’s health authority on Vancouver Island and surrounding communities.

Dr. Allison added that lab reports are showing that analyzed methamphetamine and cocaine often contain powerful synthetic opiates such as fentanyl or potent sedatives, including benzodiazepines.

In her interview with Daily Commercial News, Vicky Waldron, executive director of Construction Industry Rehab Plan (CIRP), stated that there are likely several factors contributing to the “perfect storm” of the recent spike in overdose deaths.

Waldron mentioned that the male-dominated environment, high risk of occupational injuries and a culture that stigmatizes men who admit they are in physical or emotional pain are all contributing factors to increased opioid use and overdose. Waldron cited a critical shortage of workers and pressure to get back to work after injury as additional contributing factors to overdose deaths.

In addition, Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) have carried out research in partnership with Island Health to conduct extensive interviews with individuals working in the construction industry who use drugs, which allowed them to identify three different profiles.

Individuals in the first profile started construction when they were young and began using drugs and alcohol for recreation, which escalated in the event of mental health issues, often from high stress, burnout or feeling overwhelmed.

Profile B describes construction workers who had sustained an injury and were prescribed opiates for pain management. However, the use of these medications evolved into substance abuse.

Profile C includes individuals who experienced severe trauma and began using drugs as a coping strategy. Due to inability to maintain regular employment, they joined the construction industry, often as a labourer, in order to have flexible, low-barrier work.

“Regardless of profile, there is a reluctance to seek help, particularly in the male demographic, for health, mental health or wellness in general,” said Rory Kulmala, CEO of VICA.