Pandemic Within a Pandemic: Opioid Crisis Hits Construction Industry Hard

Cavina T Morris

A province-wide opioid crisis grew even more widespread in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of confirmed and probable deaths from drug overdose increasing by over 60% year-over-year between February, 2020 and December, 2020. The construction industry has among the highest injury rates among jobs in Canada, and these injuries and associated pain result in higher incidences of opioid prescriptions to manage pain. In a troubling report, approximately one-third of the 2,500 opioid-related overdose deaths of employed people in Ontario in 2020 came from the construction industry workforce, showing signs of a localized epidemic within a wider opioid epidemic, made worse by a global pandemic. 

Construction workers with musculoskeletal disorders are three times more likely than their co-workers to use prescriptions for pain management, which adds to the number of workers prescribed opioid drugs for on-site injuries. Just as much of a threat, recreational drug use remains prevalent in the construction industry, and powerful opioid Fentanyl has infiltrated the supply of street drugs, resulting in a substantial increase in the volume of opioid overdoses in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded these issues, as social isolation makes it harder for friends, family, and colleagues of opioid users to be on hand to deliver potentially life-saving Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose.

Construction in Toronto, image by Jack Landau

A press release issued this morning is shedding light on a new campaign from the Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC) and the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO), which is bringing awareness about this “pandemic within a pandemic” with a call to action to address The Other Pandemic. The program seeks to support an industry facing a crisis of suicide and opioid use with union-developed measures including employing instructors and staff engaged in mental wellness awareness programs, destigmatization, as well as the provision of life-saving Naloxone kits.

Construction in Toronto, image by Jack Landau

Mike Yorke, President of the CDCO, thinks the problems are at least partially rooted in the physically demanding nature of construction-related work, but heavily exacerbated by a “tough-guy culture” endemic to the industry. Yorke hopes the program can help to break down the stigma of asking for help being perceived as a sign of weakness, with soaring figures of injuries, addiction, and death all clear signs that workers are not alone in their fight, and the time for dialogue is now. 

Construction in Toronto, image by Jack Landau

While CDCO has taken a prominent position on the issue with this campaign, Yorke tells us that the campaign is meant to bring awareness to a much wider audience than just unionized workers, saying “We’re taking a wider stance and standing up as a voice for union and non-union workers.” Yorke also makes special mention of those in government that are taking notice of the campaign, with government awareness an important catalyst for action. “Credit should go to Mayors John Tory, Patrick Brown and Fred Eisenberger for expressing interest in what we’re doing,” said Yorke.

Phil Gillies, Executive Director of the OCC, speaks to the organization’s role in educating government, industry, media and the public on issues affecting the construction industry. With opioid use reaching epidemic levels in the construction industry, Gillies tells us that “the United States’ CDC has reported that construction workers suffer the highest rate of opioid-related overdoses of any U.S. occupation, and we knew we were facing the same problem here in Canada. Nothing has really been done to address this issue, and we hope that bringing awareness of this crisis to workers, employers, and governments is an important first step.”

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