A group that represents Ontario construction companies is launching a campaign to raise awareness after a new report revealed construction workers made up nearly a third of opioid deaths among employed Ontarians in 2020.
Of the nearly 2,500 opioid-related deaths last year in the province, 30 per cent of victims who were employed were construction workers, the report by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network says.
"It's far more than is found in any other sector," said Phil Gillies, the executive director of the Ontario Construction Coalition (OCC).
The report, released May 19, found 2,426 Ontarians died of opioid overdoses in 2020, up from 1,517 in 2019 — an increase of 60 per cent. Additionally, it measures deaths from the beginning of the pandemic in March to the end of the year in December (2,050), and shows 264 of those who died in that time period were employed and 78 of them were construction workers.
In response, the OCC has launched a public information campaign dubbed "The Other Pandemic," which urges construction companies, contractors, workers, and all levels of government to take action. The campaign offers several recommendations.
"A user should either be going to a supervised injection site or using at least with another trusted person in the room with access to one of these," Gillies said as he pointed to a kit containing naloxone, an opioid antidote administered by injection to save the user's life.
'What we are recommending here will save lives'
Using drugs with another person would open the possibility of breaking physical distancing restrictions during COVID-19, Gillies admitted. Consequently, the OCC urges all construction workers to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
The campaign asks unions and contractors to increase training and education regarding opioid drug use and its possible consequences. It's also asking governments to increase addiction treatment and counselling services as well as review its policies regarding drug and opioid use, suggesting a revision to allow for a safe drug supply for people with addiction problems.
And finally, Gillies urged "if the impacted worker is at all able to get help and stop using, they should."
Researchers found construction workers with musculoskeletal disorders are three times more likely than coworkers to use prescriptions for pain management.
Gillies said there are four factors he believes contribute to the high use of opioids among construction workers: young male demographics, the nature of work with a high rate of injury, the relative disposable income, and attitude.
"There's an attitude very prevalent among construction workers that you know we're tough, we can do anything and get away with it," Gillies said, "which may lead them to be more likely to try this risky behaviour."
The OCC has sought the advice of Dr. Andrea Sereda of the London Intercommunity Health Centre for its campaign. Sereda works primarily with people experiencing homelessness or living in a shelter. She said the drastic increase in the number of deaths is alarming.
The unsafe street drug supply is part of the problem, she believes.
Street drug supply increasingly potent and volatile
"You hear that the street supply is tainted with fentanyl; that's not the case, the street supply is fentanyl," Sereda said.
The street supply moves in a "fatal direction" she explained, with the drug becoming more volatile and more potent. Batches aren't mixed consistently so different supplies end up with different potencies and a different amount of cutting agent.
"They don't actually know the potency of the drugs that they're buying and consuming," Sereda said.
Sereda stresses a better solution is needed.
"I'd really like to see all levels of government reach out to experts like myself and my team to really discuss innovative solutions that can target these overdoses and fatalities," Sereda explained. "Because what we've done so far is not working, and we're running out of time."
She advocates a range of solutions, including abstinence-based recovery, residential treatment, and conventional opioid therapies like methadone or suboxone.