Building Trades Unions at Forefront of Opioid Crisis

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By Jaclyn Diaz

The construction industry is disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, so local unions are becoming an instrumental part in helping members combat addiction problems, representatives from North America’s Building Trades Union said.

More than 115 people in the U.S. die every day after overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For workers in the construction industry, the overdose rate is seven times that of the general population, Chris Cain, the director of safety and health for NABTU, said.

“We’re losing people at an alarming rate,” Kyle Zimmer, health and safety director for International Union of Operation Engineers Local 478 in Connecticut, said.

A year ago, NABTU established a task force of its member unions and select employers to address that very issue and to help members successfully recover from addiction, Cain said. Education about prevention and treatment, coupled with peer support programs, put in place by local building trades unions can be a way out of the crisis, Cain said.

Cain and other NABTU representatives spoke to local union leaders during NABTU’s legislative conference in Washington April 17.

Why So Prevalent in Construction?

The overdose rates among construction workers should be “an eye opener for everybody,” Cain said. Why is construction such a hotbed of addiction? It’s the culture, the nature of the work, and the work environment, she and Zimmer said.

The rate of excessive smoking and drinking in the industry is double that of other industries. There’s also a “stoic tough-guy culture” that permeates the building trades, Zimmer said. There’s a belief among those workers that “we can’t get hurt and we’re tough,” he said.

The injuries reported by members tell a different story. The work that members do wears on the body, Cain said. So injuries are often treated with lengthy prescriptions for painkillers when it’s not always necessary, making addiction nearly inevitable, she said.

How Should Unions Address Problem?

The NABTU task force has met twice so far and established a framework of prevention education to address member needs. The task force collected information from union and Building Trades Council representatives and determined that local union efforts can help shape NABTU’s approach to fighting substance abuse.

Many unions are already educating members on the prevalence of addiction and attempting to de-stigmatize the problem, Cain said. Others are going several steps further.

Workplace injuries are bound to happen in this industry, so local unions have started education initiatives that present pain management alternatives to opiates. That could include acupuncture and physical therapy, she said.

Some locals, like those of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, are even vetting rehab centers. That way, members are not tricked into entering a pricey treatment center that doesn’t offer adequate care, she said.

A few unions, including the International Association of Ironworkers, are even addressing income needs for members who enter rehab. Those facilities often require people to undergo inpatient treatment for weeks at a time. The idea of going without pay for that long is more than enough to dissuade a worker from entering a program, she said.

Kenneth Serviss, executive director of the Allied Trades Assistance Program in Philadelphia, has provided especially successful union-led addiction treatment programs, Cain said.

The Philadelphia Building Trades established the Allied Trades Assistance Program, a nonprofit organization, to contain costs and improve treatment services for substance abuse disorder, mental health concerns, and related issues for union members, retirees, and their dependents. Through this program, the group has received grant funding to develop an online course for union apprentices to learn about substance abuse in the workplace so they understand the signs and symptoms and know what support programs the union offers.

There is also a program for peer advocacy training, a critical part of the recovery process, Serviss said.

It’s incredibly difficult for someone in recovery to return to a work environment where drugs and drinking are part of the culture, he said. By having those peer advocates available, recovering addicts have someone to turn to.

“It’s hard to change people, places, and things when it’s your job,” he said.

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