'Very troubling': Construction sector hard hit by opioid overdose deaths

The London Free Press - June 3, 2021

They are young, have money and working a tough job.

They are also in pain and dying in startling numbers. 

The opioid epidemic has hit the construction sector hard, with the latest research finding construction workers accounted for nearly one in three drug overdose deaths in Ontario in 2020 among people who were employed, according to figures cited by the Ontario Construction Consortium, an industry group.

The business employs young men, pays well and can leave workers injured. That has turned out to be a deadly combination.

“It’s very, very troubling,” consortium Phil Gillies said.

“This is not a concept; these are real people, real lives being lost. These are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. It’s a crisis.”

The consortium cites a provincial report that said 2,500 Ontarians died of drug overdoses in 2020, and the construction industry was, by far, the industry most affected by the deaths.

The industry group estimates there were as many as 160 deaths in the building sector last year due to opioids, with fentanyl accounting for 87 per cent of fatalities.

A highly additive opioid pain medication, fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin; a related drug, carfentanyl, is 5,000 times more potent. Both drugs have been blamed for fuelling the deadly opioid crisis in Canada that killed has killed hundreds across Ontario and nationwide.

“It’s no secret the construction industry is inherently a physically demanding profession which can be tough on the body,” said Brandon MacKinnon, a representative with Local 1059 of the Labourers International Union of North America (LiUNA).

To deal with ongoing pain, workers may use opioids, which can lead to addiction issues, he said. The union is so concerned with opioid use, it is working to add medicinal cannabis to workplace drug benefit packages, as an alternative to painkillers, MacKinnon said.

“When they get injured, they are treated, prescribed painkillers that are usually opiate-based and when the prescription ends, they go to the street,” Gillies said.

“There’s a sociological element, too. Some think they’re invincible, they can dabble in it and not get hurt.”

In addition, construction workers can be well paid and have the income to pay for street drugs, Gilles said. “Those are the factors driving this.”

Before the pandemic, the London area had about 10 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 residents, the report said. Amid the pandemic, the rate has risen to about 15.

“London was hit hard,” said Andrea Sereda, a doctor at London InterCommunity Health Centre who is working with the construction consortium and its partners to address the issue.

When addiction leads the users to buy street drugs, the drugs often are laced with other drugs making for a lethal combination, she said. “Cutting with other drugs contributes to overdose rates.”

Some users are opioid-dependent for several years, but that turns fatal when opioids are cut with other drugs, she said.

The report was done by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN), the office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario and Public Health Ontario.

The Ontario Construction Consortium represents construction businesses and unions and is launching a public information campaign to make construction workers aware of the dangers of using opioids.

The campaign urges users not to do drugs alone, and have a nearby Naloxone kit – a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses – or go to a supervised drug use site. Naloxone is a medication that blocks the effects of opioids, and the kits are widely available.

The consortium wants unions and contractors to improve training and education regarding drug use and its possible consequences. It also wants government to increase addiction treatment and counselling services.

“We need to put money and action into prevention,” Gillies said.

LiUNA members can be prescribed cannabis if they meet preconditions such as experiencing chronic pain, MacKinnon said.

“So far it has been well received by our members and employer partners,” he said. “We’re hoping that by providing this alternative that our members can effectively treat any pain they’re experiencing and do it in a safer, less addictive manner.”