Approximately 2,500 people died from opioid-related causes in Ontario between March, 2020 and January, 2021. Of the victims who were employed, 30% were reported as being construction workers – the industry that was impacted the most, by far. To combat this, the Ontario government announced last week that it has introduced legislation dubbed the Working for Workers Act. If passed, the law would require workplaces that are at risk of a worker opioid overdose to have naloxone kits on site, as well as increase the maximum fines for businesses that fail to protect their workers to the highest in the country.
“The opioid crisis is a big concern to us in the construction industry,” said Phil Gillies of the Ontario Construction Consortium. “The crisis got a lot worse over the last year, but public awareness has been hyper-focussed on COVID-19.” And it’s true; after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, opioid-related deaths surged in Ontario, and the number of confirmed and probable deaths from drug overdose increased by over 60%.
Gillies suggested that governments should look to change policies in regard to a safe drug supply, rather than sitting by and letting street drugs infiltrate the industry and cause a preventable loss of life. The Working for Workers bill that proposes to have naloxone kits at every job site would be a big step in that direction.
Naloxone is a medication that can be used to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, allowing time for medical help to arrive. Requiring businesses in high-risk settings to have naloxone kits on-site could help reduce the stigma around opioid abuse in the industry, as well as raise awareness about the risks of accidental overdoses – potentially saving hundreds of lives a year.
“Everyone in our province knows someone who has been impacted by the opioid epidemic in some capacity,” said Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, who proposed the legislation. “We need to do everything in our power to save lives. That is why our government is bringing life-saving naloxone kits to high-risk settings like construction sites.”
This comes as great news to the groups that have been advocating for this type of support for a while, including the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO), the Painters Union, the Interiors Systems Contractors Association, and the Ontario Construction Consortium. These groups came together a year ago in an effort to promote change in the industry after the death of a second term apprentice who overdosed on opioids over the May long weekend in 2021.
Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenter’s Union told UrbanToronto that event in particular was what pushed the groups to create The Other Pandemic; an online body that advocates for better support for those dealing with opioid addiction in the construction industry, as well as a resource for those suffering with substance abuse in the construction industry to seek out help.
“[After the death of the apprentice] we did in-house education with our members, and collaborated with colleagues of ours in the United States who were experts in the field relating to opioid use in the construction industry,” he said. The Other Pandemic was launched shortly after that. “We have had support from Toronto Mayor John Tory, as well as Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, and other leaders within the construction industry such as Giovanni Cautillo from the General Contractors Association,” added Yorke.
After operating as a landing page for various opioid-related resources for nearly a year, the provincial government is now acting to help those in need in the construction industry, and prevent unnecessary deaths.
“This is one of the first times I have ever been involved in a project from inception right thorough to seeing legislation being proposed at Queen’s Park,” said Yorke. “The fact that Naloxone kits are now going to be circulated on job sites, that was a recommendation advocated for by the Ontario Drug Prevention Network, and the Ontario Construction Consortium through The Other Pandemic. For us, it’s important to bring these concerns forward and have meetings with people such as the Minister of Labour, and then see legislation come as a result of our efforts. For there to be legislation proposed as a result of that is really great in our eyes.”