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B.C.’s overdose crisis: drugs, death and denial on the job

A recent survey of construction workers in B.C. found 1 in 3 self-reported problematic substance use
FILE -Dean Anderson holds up a sign before a march on the first National Day of Action to draw attention to the opioid overdose epidemic, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE TYEE

Vince Tournour’s obituary said it best: he loved and he was loved.

Before he broke his back after a hard fall at work, before the pills, before he died alone on a winter night in a motel room in Bracebridge, Ontario, Rob Tournour says his brother was a good man who gave big hugs, had a bigger smile and loved carving, canoeing and carpentry.

But then a cocktail of drugs turned him into a number, one of thousands killed in a toxic drug epidemic claiming Canada’s working men.

“When I think about my brother lying dead in that fucking, shitty little motel, and I’m looking at his picture right now beside my desk, every day I wish he was still here,” Rob Tournour said.

“He tried. But in our system, he was a statistic.”

Vince was one of hundreds of men in the trades who died as a result of a toxic, unpredictable drug supply — a public health crisis that has shaken an industry defined by camaraderie and brotherhood.

Good data is scarce. But available information paints a troubling picture of substance use in the trades. A recent survey of construction workers in B.C. found one in three self-reported problematic substance use.

For many, that substance may be alcohol or cannabis. But many workers are also using stimulants, opioids, benzodiazepines or a combination of them all — a dangerous and increasingly deadly trend. The BC Coroners Service says roughly one in five of the 6,000 British Columbians who died of a toxic drug poisoning from July 2017 to August 2021 worked in the skilled trades and transportation sectors.

Rob Tournour might have been one of them. He started drinking when he was 16 and turned to cocaine shortly after. He quit 12 years ago, after a sleepless night that ended in a bleary-eyed sobriety meeting.

He said his story, and that of his brother, are tragically common accounts in construction and the skilled trades. Unions and workers say tough working conditions, high rates of injury and zero-tolerance policies create ripe conditions for use and abuse. Tradespeople — more than 90 per cent of whom are men — have long avoided talking about it, for fear of judgment or loss of work.

“Everybody is a tough guy. And they’re scared to not be a tough guy. They’re scared to be the one with the problem,” said Trevor Botkin, a carpenter who stopped using drugs in 2019. “Using the drugs is fine. But being addicted, that’s dirty.”

Employers and tradespeople alike have bristled at discussing the topic, worried it paints their profession in a negative light.

Today, that attitude is changing. Businesses and unions have made joint pitches to British Columbia’s NDP government, asking for more money to prevent deaths in the trades. Workers like Botkin and Tournour have personally fought to change the culture at work sites.

But the few specialized resources for construction workers at risk of dying are overwhelmed.

“Nothing is going to happen fast enough. Look at the rate that men are dying,” Botkin said. “I just don’t have that answer.”

Born into the trades

Anthony Monti was born to be a tradesman. At 12, his father was taking him to construction sites. When he was 15, he got his first job in Kelowna. And by 18, he was working in the oilfields near Fort McMurray. He loved the work, the people and the satisfaction of a good concrete finish.

“There’s just something about it,” Monti said. “It’s hard work, as well. But there’s an artistic part of it.”

In eight months of work in Alberta, he could clear six figures.

“I was making a lot of money, so I thought I was doing OK,” Monti said. “That was the main thing. If you’re making money, you’re doing good. But I wasn’t inside. Not mentally.”

Since he was a teenager, Monti had been dealing with a worsening substance use issue.

When Monti arrived in Alberta, he fell deeper into a pattern of use. Shift hours were long and hard. Offsite, workers would use drugs to numb pain from the job or pass the time. In Kelowna, he mostly drank and used cocaine. By the time he left Fort McMurray, he was using heroin.

“In my heart, I didn’t like it. But to survive in that atmosphere, you had to change,” Monti said.

It was an open secret: everyone knew what was happening, Monti said. But any sign that someone was struggling with substance use was met with judgment, Monti says — even if many others were going through the same thing.

“It shows weakness,” he said. “Before I got into recovery, I could have friends die, and my mentality in my head was, `He wasn’t doing it right.”’

Monti’s story echoes that of many workers in the trades, who say the culture of the industry and a stigma against substance use kept them from seeking help and plunged them deeper into addiction.

Substance use in the trades is not a new issue. In 1980, construction industry employers and unions joined forces to create the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan, a dedicated resource for members who used drugs and wanted to stop. The program is funded jointly by employers and unions, a recognition the issue goes beyond differences at the bargaining table.

What has changed over the years, however, is the toxicity of the illicit drug supply.

In 2016, Monti completed a 60-day rehabilitation program, right as fentanyl was coming into B.C.’s illegal drug supply. He remembers losing seven friends in the six months that followed.

“It rattled me,” Monti said. “It could have been me. It would have been me.”

That loss — and risk — is felt deeply in the skilled trades. Last year, the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan conducted a survey in partnership with WorkSafeBC. One in three of the 270 workers who responded to the online poll reported having problematic substance use. Half of total respondents said they had a mental health problem and more than 70 per cent screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t think we would have the issue we have in construction today if it weren’t for what I call the perfect storm,” said rehabilitation plan executive director Vicky Waldron. “It’s not something anyone has thought out or maliciously created. I think a lot of variables have all collided.”

Waldron says the loss is felt at every level of the industry. But for many years, it was verboten.

“There are still many parts of the industry .125that.375 will tell you there is not an issue going on. `There is nothing to see here.’ The truth is, it’s becoming more and more difficult to deny as more and more data comes in.”

`Suck it Up’

Kale Moth pulled prosperity from the ground. Moth began his career as an oil rigger in Lloydminster, a border town with one foot in Alberta and the other in Saskatchewan. He didn’t have much growing up. His job on the rigs let him afford a truck, a home and more than one decision he would grow to regret.

A short while into his job, Moth tried cocaine for the first time. Within three months, he was selling it. Drugs, he said, were part of a lifestyle. But they were also one of the only ways to numb the pain of “backbreaking” shifts at the rigs that started early in the morning and went well into the night.

“The work is beyond physically demanding. It’s mentally draining. It’s not easy to push yourself through that without some sort of stimulant,” Moth said.

Moth was far from the only person on the rigs using drugs, he said. But the topic wasn’t discussed. Asking someone for help, Moth said, would be met with more scorn than compassion.

“You’re not getting connection. You’re not getting fulfilled in any way. So you turn to something that makes you feel good for a short amount of time,” Moth said.

Moth said part and parcel of the crisis in the trades is a crisis of masculinity and of societal norms that push men from seeking help.

Across Canada, three out of four people who die from the toxic drug supply are men. In B.C., nine out of ten of the roughly 250,000 workers in the construction industry are male. Tradesmen describe their profession as a tight-knit brotherhood, a career where anyone could earn a good living by working hard. The trades, as careers, are often open to men regardless of the postal code they grew up in, their personal histories or their high school transcripts.

The flipside, according to Botkin, is a culture that celebrates suffering and looks down on vulnerability.

“The culture around job sites is, `Work hard and good things will come to you’,” Botkin said. “We celebrate our suffering on job sites. We’re proud of how hard the job is and that not everybody can do it. And with that, we’re very scared to be vulnerable, to be the weak link in the chain.”

Lorna Thomas’s son Alex, a welder, died by a drug-related suicide at the age of 24.

“I say he died by stigma,” Thomas said. “He was not able to speak to people, not able to speak to his boss openly about what was going on.”

Thomas, a filmmaker, documented the troubling toll overdose deaths have taken in the skilled trades in a short film called Building Hope: Substance Use in the Trades, which starred Tournour, Moth and Botkin.

“People are going to do everything they can to avoid being in trouble. And the workplace policies don’t always work in favour of someone who wants to disclose,” Thomas said.

For Moth, the breaking point came when his older cousin died of a fatal overdose in a B.C. rehabilitation centre. He is now sober and living in Saskatoon, where he is training to be a welder. In his spare time, he is an advocate for men’s health — and particularly for workers in the trades using substances.

“It’s so embedded into the trades,” Moth said. “It’s so accepted.”

Breaking backs

BC Building Trades executive director Brynn Bourke says B.C.’s construction industry is inherently precarious, dangerous work.

“The structure of how the industry works is so unforgiving for anyone,” Bourke later said. “If you don’t report to work, you don’t get paid. There are very few industries that operate with such hard guardrails around being sick or being unable to come to work like the construction industry does.”

Less than 15 per cent of B.C. construction workers are in a union. Many don’t have benefits or a formal relationship with an employer. The rate of serious injury is nearly three times higher than the average worker, according to data from WorkSafeBC. The vast majority of employers are small companies employing fewer than 20 people, meaning staffing and deadlines are often tight.

“You’ve got an industry that is very short-staffed, an industry that doesn’t have enough supply for the demand that exists. You have an industry that is predominantly made of small, independent contractors that are competing with very tight margins against each other to deliver on jobs,” Waldron said. “When you couple all of these variables together… you have the perfect storm.”

The BC Building Trades, whose 14 affiliate unions represent about 40,000 tradespeople, has long advocated for a holistic approach to reducing the harms of substance use that includes on-site worker safety, better working conditions and more resources such as the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan, which it helps fund. “Every one of my business managers knows someone who has died from poisoned drugs,” Bourke said.

One of the long-standing issues is chronic pain and injury on the job. Doug Parton, the business agent for Ironworkers Local 97, believes prescription of opioids after being hurt on the job is one of the drivers of use.

A 2020 Globe and Mail investigation found doctors used by workers compensation boards, which are designed to protect workers, were sometimes prescribing opioids after an injury, pushing them back to work and then cutting their benefits, pushing them towards the illicit supply.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said WorkSafeBC, the organization mandated to keep workers safe, had adopted what he called a “harm reduction strategy” around opioid prescriptions for workers focused on preventing chronic opioid use and finding alternative therapies for workers with chronic pain or addiction.

The decision of what to prescribe is up to a doctor, Bains said, but he believes the program is bearing fruit. He said the number of workers considered chronic opioid users without a viable treatment alternative had decreased from about 9,000 in 2017 to just over 6,200 in 2021.

Bourke says non-opiate pain prescriptions are part of the solution. But she and other advocates say broader, institutional change is needed.

In 2020, Fraser Health and the rehabilitation plan released a report around return-to-work procedures for construction workers who use or used drugs. One of the findings was that many employers and unions did not have concrete policies to accommodate those workers or suitable work options if they could not do their prior job. In addition, the report said, many workers preferred after-work treatment options because they feared losing income. It also found that return-to-work processes often hinged on the question of whether a worker was impaired, rather than overall well-being, and that there was generally poor awareness around what treatment programs were available and how to access them.

The Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan exists specifically to help construction workers access those resources. In 2021, Waldron said they received 6,500 calls — a more than 60 per cent jump from the year prior. When she began work at the program in 2016, she said they treated an average of 60 people a year. Now they consistently see more than 200.

Not all people who use drugs want to enter residential treatment. But for those who do, Waldron said waits are a challenge. “Getting a bed is incredibly difficult, and I know I’ll take some heat for that, but it’s true. There are not enough beds. There are not enough resources. And the wait times can be considerable.”

The Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan used to run its own residential treatment facility, Waldron said, but it was closed years ago due to issues with the building. She says the organization is now trying to secure government support for a new, dedicated facility with 25 to 40 beds specifically for B.C. construction workers. (Bains said he was aware of the proposal but that no funding commitment had been made.)

Unions and employers say they’re also embracing the B.C. government’s broader focus on harm reduction — ways of making substance use safer rather than insisting on abstinence.

Dave Baspaly, the president of the Council of Construction Associations, said that has included asking government to provide naloxone kits at all construction sites. Such kits can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose if provided quickly.

“You’ve got a patchwork quilt and everybody trying to do right by it, but I think that what ends up happening is that it drives it underground,” Baspaly said.

“This is one of those issues that is felt top to bottom, labour to employer,” Baspaly said. “That, and asbestos.”

But unlike asbestos, Bourke says employers and unions don’t have a clear understanding of how to integrate harm reduction approaches for substance use into the industry.

“We don’t have the blueprint. We have a system that is built on trying to manage use of substances, and it only has blunt instruments for that,” she said.

Tough enough to talk about it

There’s one place where people agree progress is being made: awareness. Waldron said the rehabilitation plan survey of B.C. construction workers found most wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing a substance use issue to their peers. But paradoxically, it also found the vast majority would support a colleague if they disclosed.

“We have unions and employers that are spending hours of their time just talking about mental health and substance use, talking about using the correct language without stigmatizing, encouraging people to come forward,” Waldron said.

In 2017, the Vancouver Island Construction Association began the Tailgate Toolkit, a guide to how construction workers can access resources to use drugs more safely. The association began giving talks on Vancouver Island, and now offer them across the province, with backing from the B.C. government.

The association’s CEO, Rory Kulmala, says many greeted those talks with skepticism at first. Now people are taking the issue more seriously.

“I have to say when I started down this road five years ago, I had industry people saying, `Don’t say anything, because people will say we have a problem,”’ Kulmala said. “Well, the coroners’ report says we have a problem.”

Many of the men interviewed for this story have made personal and professional commitments to helping their peers struggling with substance use.

Rob Tournour, a bricklayer by trade, says his substance use began with alcohol, adding that it was normal for a crew to go out drinking after a hard day of work.

“On the outside, it might look like you’re having a pretty damn good time,” Tournour said. “But for me, as it progressed through my 30s and my early 40s, the more I drank, the more I was thinking of getting ahold of coke, and then it turned into crack as well.”

That ended 12 years ago, when Tournour got home from another late, hard night and decided to go to his first sobriety meeting. He estimated he went to as many as 200 meetings in the 90 days after that.

Moth, who now lives in Saskatoon, has delivered public talks about his time in the trades encouraging other men to come forward.

Botkin, who works full time at a Victoria non-profit, has also shared his story.

Monti resolved years ago, he said, to pay it forward to other workers in the industry going through what he went through.

And Tournour says he is doing it for his brother.

“It’s become a little more OK for men to open up and discuss the traumas they may have faced,” said Tournour. “Our society has groomed us to be strong, to be protectors, to be the providers. And God, in this world now that we’re living in, that’s not such an easy thing to do.”

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