Worsening opioid crisis taking outsized toll on Ontario’s construction workforce

On-Site Mag - June 2, 2021

The spotlight remains trained squarely on COVID-19, but several Ontario construction groups are warning of another, worsening “pandemic” that has found a foothold in the industry. 

The Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC), backed by several trade associations, launched a new campaign March 31 to raise awareness of the significant toll Ontario’s opioid crisis is having on the province’s construction industry.

“This situation is alarming”, said Phil Gillies, in a release. “Construction workers are dying from drug overdoses, a crisis largely driven by the widespread street distribution of the highly-addictive opioid fentanyl.”

The initiative builds off research released last month by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network (ODPRN), the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario and Public Health Ontario, which shows opioid-related deaths in Ontario rose 60 per cent in 2020, to 2,426. The increase in deaths tied to opioids was even more pronounced during the pandemic. Comparing pre-pandemic and pandemic “cohorts” — measured from March to December 2019 and 2020, respectively — deaths increased 79 per cent during the pandemic, the report shows.

The crisis is having the greatest impact on those who are unemployed, with roughly half of deaths attributed to Ontarians who are not working. Of those who are employed, however, nearly one in three work in construction. The report from the ODPRN counts 57 deaths in the pre-pandemic cohort and 78 deaths in the pandemic cohort among those working in construction — just under 30 per cent of deaths among employed Ontarians for each cohort. It is the worst-hit industry by far.

The new data reinforces similar, earlier findings from British Columbia, which tied approximately one in every five fatal overdoses in the province to the construction industry.

Gillies attributes the increase in deaths to isolation and mental health issues imposed by the pandemic. The research from ODPRN, also cites the “synergistic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic” as continuing to escalate the total number of opioid-related deaths in Ontario, and calls for rapid action to invest in support programs.

“The high number of polysubstance deaths, and the ongoing volatility of the unregulated opioid market, support the expansion of access to harm reduction services (e.g., safer spaces to use drugs, access to naloxone), low-barrier opioid agonist treatment, and a safer supply of regulated drugs,” the report concludes.

Within construction, the OCC initiative, backed by the the Interior Systems Contractors Association, the Carpenters Union District Council of Ontario and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, will target unions, contractors and workers themselves. Among other priorities, “The Other Pandemic” campaign urges individuals to seek help for addiction, to not use drugs alone and keep a Naloxone kit on-hand.

“We know that urging drug users not to use in isolation goes against most advice directed at the general population re: the COVIC pandemic. There the messaging is about staying away from other unrelated people,” Gillies says, adding that drug users should also get vaccinated for COVID-19. “But using hard drugs alone is killing people. What we are recommending here will save lives.”

The OCC is also calling on unions and employers to step up drug use training, and on governments to increase support for addiction treatment and counselling services.