Illicit drug overdoses are claiming a staggering number of lives in British Columbia, and Vancouver Local 213 members are learning how to help.
More and more people are dying from drug overdoses across the U.S. and Canada and the construction industry isn’t immune. In fact, it’s one of the hardest hit sectors of the workforce. And the epidemic is not showing signs of slowing down.
According to Fraser Health, a regional public health authority, men aged 19-59 working in the building trades have been disproportionately represented in the number of opioid deaths, often because the highly physical jobs they perform result in pain management techniques that eventually cross the line into substance abuse.
“The construction industry is losing more workers — specifically men — than any other industry,” said Vicky Waldron, Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan executive director, in the Journal. CIRP is a joint initiative of the Construction Labour Relations Association of British Columbia and the B.C. Building Trades Council.
In March, Local 213 offered a free training on how to use Naloxone, a life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
“Communities are being devastated and this is a free and effective way to help,” said Local 213 Business Manager Adam Van Steinburg. “Our members were all for it.”
In British Columbia, more than 1,400 people died from an overdose in 2017, according to the province’s coroners service, and fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid that’s more toxic than heroin, was involved in 84 percent of those deaths.
In many cases, people aren’t seeking out fentanyl but are unknowingly consuming it in other drugs like cocaine. This cross-contamination is showing up in almost 90 percent of street drugs, according to a study by Vancouver Coastal Health, reported the CBC.
“That’s a real concern,” said Local 213 dispatcher Mandeep Saggu, who organized the training. “I knew there were some members who had been affected and weren’t getting the proper help.”
About 25-30 people attended the two-hour training, held in partnership with CIRP. Participants were each given a Naloxone kit, which includes three vials of the drug and a needle to administer it. Members practiced injections on lemons.
“It's a valuable skill to have, just like first aid,” said Local 213 member Emelia Colman-Shepherd, who took the course. “I'd recommend it to anyone.”
Half of the Naloxone training was dedicated to learning how to use the kits. The other half covered mental health issues.
“Mental health and addiction run hand in hand,” said IBEW International Representative Jim Watson, who runs a two-day workshop on mental health, one that some Local 213 members have taken. “The goal is to let people know that it’s OK to not be OK, and we are there to help.”
Waldron says part of their work involves not just harm reduction techniques like Naloxone training, but reducing the stigma associated with addiction. For that reason, she doesn’t say “addiction” or “substance abuse,” and instead says “substance use.” And someone isn’t an addict, they’re “substance affected.”
“Shame and stigma are perhaps some of the greatest barriers our clients face when thinking about reaching out for help,” Waldron said.
The Code of Excellence can also play a role in treatment, Watson said.
“The Code ties in so well,” said Watson, who has been trained in mental health first aid, substance abuse and community service. “It’s about relationships and looking after our own, so we can continue to send out our best.”
Saggu says that if a member is experiencing problems with substance use or mental health, they can contact the local for help.
The province offers Naloxone, also known as Narcan, for free to qualifying individuals, and many pharmacies carry it. Members can also contact CIRP for a kit and training.
“It’s everyday people we’re talking about, not just people on the street,” Saggu said of the epidemic. “It could happen to anyone, including a brother or sister.”