“WORK HURT or don’t work at all.” That’s all you need to know about why so many construction workers suffer with substance abuse, says carpenter Jack Raymond. “Employers are the only ones who can fix that,” says Raymond. “If so many of us didn’t get hurt, and fired once we are hurt, there wouldn’t be a ‘drug abuse problem’ in construction in the first place.”
But, there is a growing drug abuse problem on construction sites in Canada today. And, no matter how true Raymond’s insight on employer behaviour is, it doesn’t help deal with the fearsome drug abuse reality thousands of construction workers grapple with every day.
33% say drugs use
is a personal problem
A recent survey of construction workers in B.C. found one in three self-reported problematic substance use.
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.
For many, that substance may be alcohol, cannabis, opioids, or a combination of them all. It is 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.
Dangerous and precarious
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,” says Bourke. “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.
In a 2020 report, Fraser Health and the rehabilitation plan found many employers and unions did not have concrete return-to-work policies for workers who use or used drugs, or suitable work options if they could not do their prior job. In addition, the report found that there was generally poor awareness around what treatment programs were available for workers and how to access them.
Substance use in the trades is not a new issue. In 1980, construction industry employers and unions in B.C. 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 that the issue goes beyond differences at the bargaining table.
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.
But the drive to push construction workers to work hurt is relentless.
A 2020 Globe and Mail investigation found doctors used by workers compensation boards, were sometimes prescribing opioids after an injury, pushing them back to work—and then cutting their benefits, pushing them towards the illicit supply.
Worker calls to the B.C. Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan jumped more than 60 per cent in 2021.
Once again, the final way to end the harm endured by workers lies with employers changing their contemptible ways—until that happens workers are left, as always, to find their own ways to survive.
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