Groundbreaking study digs into substance use risks

The study found that alcohol and cannabis presented the biggest safety and health-related risks for the construction sector.

A pharmacist demonstrates how to use a naloxone kit. – Province of B.C.

A landmark study commissioned by on substance use in the construction sector is shedding new light on the issues the industry faces and suggests efforts to improve worker health need to be expanded.

The researchers found that that marijuana and alcohol may be larger risks for construction workers than previously thought. 

The report, Construction Safety & Substance Use: Blueprint for Action in B.C., was commissioned by the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance. Itincluded responses from 639 workers and interviews with 35 industry leaders from a variety of industry segments from many different parts of the province. 

Dr. Julian Somers, one of the study’s authors, explained that the workers filled out questionnaires while the industry leaders participated in semi-structured interviews. These interviews were then analyzed using special software and compared to the questionnaires. 

“They are in tight agreement around what the problems are related to substance use,” said Somers. “The Blueprint Project found that cannabis and alcohol accounted for the vast majority of safety and health-related risks faced by workers in the B.C. construction sector.”

Cocaine use was far more commonly reported than opioid consumption among 639 workers from around BC in diverse jobs. About one in nine had heard of a drug overdose ever occurring on a jobsite. Insights from industry leaders reinforced the message that other drugs, rather than opioids, were of greatest concern. 

Somers, a professor at Simon Fraser University, has been working in the field of mental illness and substance use since the 1980s. He was director of the University of British Columbia’s Psychology Clinic, president of the BC Psychological Association, and founding director of the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction.

“We were aware of claims before we started that people in construction were somehow disproportionately associated with the drug poisoning crisis,” said Somers. “I saw the dynamic, especially with me, working in construction as day labourers. They come out of court or simply while on probation, and they are often encouraged to go to temporary labour agencies that can connect them with work on sites. That was one hypothesis that we considered which might explain the overlap.”

However, when the team began analyzing the evidence, they were not convinced. He believes that whether or not someone is employed is a much more important factor. 

“Going back to addiction literature, the headline from these analyses talking about any form of job should be that poisonings overwhelmingly affect unemployed people and there should be a focus on ways of creating opportunities for employment,” said Somer. 

He noted that the research shows individuals who used drugs shortly before or after work reported that at work they felt that they did not have control over what they were doing, they were typically younger, had lower levels of formal education, they did not feel that excellence was valued at work and did not feel like there were opportunities for advancement. 

“Alcohol – by leaps and bounds is the number one problem.”

– Anonymous informant for the Blueprint study

“This shows that the spotlight really needs to be shone in a diff direction,” said Somer. “We didn’t say anything in the report about deemphasizing opioids or that we should scale back the effort and money being spent. But we did say that it is unlikely to help the vast majority of people experiencing poisoning, mainly because those individuals are unemployed.” 

The report concludes by saying that the narrative of substantial overlap between poisonings and construction appears to be a disservice to the vast majority of those who are at risk of poisoning, and diverts attention from more robustly demonstrated safety and health-related risks in the construction sector.

“Rather than implicating the construction sector in the current poisoning crisis, the available results emphatically demonstrate the need for employment and related supports among people who are at risk for fatal poisonings,” reads the report. “And in that regard the construction sector is an important potential ally in reducing the death toll, by providing opportunities for those at risk, most commonly young men, to receive training and support for well-paying, satisfying, and in demand jobs.”

Mike McKenna, BCCSA executive director, explained that the research suggests the industry needs to come up with new ways to help improve worker health. 

“This research changes the narrative about the type of substance use we’re seeing in the construction industry,” says Mike McKenna, executive director, BCCSA. “With guidance from the evidence collected under the research program to date, we believe we’ll be able to devise programs that more effectively target substance use in the industry.”

The BC Building Trades took issue with the report, stating that it contradicts their experience in the construction industry. BC Building Trades union members access confidential counselling and addiction support services from the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP). Each year, CIRP serves approximately 220 construction workers. Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, CIRP’s intakes have increased by 64%.

“Opioid use has a significant impact on many of the people who work in the construction industry,” said the group. “The vast majority of scientific research confirms that fact. Studies from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, The National Safety Council, the BC Centre on Substance Use and the Public Health Agency of Canada all reinforce that workers in the construction industry face unique risk factors when it comes to drug use, including stigma.”

The group noted that majority of members seeking addiction support services are seeking supports for alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, but argued that this does not mean that its members are free from the dangers of B.C.’s poisoned drug supply.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about opioids, cocaine, or any other substance,” they said. “If people are using drugs, whether during downtime or on the job, there’s a good chance they contain fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. And that means those drugs can kill them.”

The group added that it does not want the construction industry to use the study to divert treatment and harm reduction resources from the sector.


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