Albertans who died from opioids were overwhelmingly in these lines of work

A review by Alberta Health found the most common occupations, by far, among people who died from opioids in 2017 were "trades, transport and equipment operators."

Review of deaths finds most common occupations, by far, were 'trades, transport and equipment operators'

A construction worker is seen in this file photo. (Matt York/Associated Press)

Filling in the blanks on a death certificate may seem like a trivial task compared to the more grim and pressing responsibilities that fall to family members when someone dies of an opioid overdose.

One question, in particular, might not seem all that relevant in such a moment: What did your deceased loved one do for work?

But hundreds of Albertans have responded to that simple question and their answers have helped shed light on something that a large number of those deaths had in common.

According to a review by Alberta Health, the most common line of work, by far, for people who died from opioids in 2017 was "trades, transport and equipment operators."

That year, there were 655 confirmed opioid deaths that were not found to be intentional. Of the people who died, 412 had occupations listed on their death certificates.

Of those, 53 per cent were jobs in the trades, transportation or equipment operation. 

Similar trends have been observed across the country.

"We know we have a specific problem that's more pronounced within the construction industry," said Arlene Dunn, director of Canada's Building Trades Unions, which represents about 60,000 workers in Alberta.

She said a big part of the issue is related to the strenuous nature of construction work. Injuries are common, as is the need for "pain management." And that has often involved a prescription for opioids.

"There are people who are legitimately on prescription opioids for pain management and they utilize it properly and there's not an issue," Dunn said.

"But there's also the issue of people who become substance dependent and, when the prescription is terminated, then they have to resort to what they need to do."

Arlene Dunn is the director of Canada's Building Trades Unions. (Building Trades/YouTube)

That often means turning to street drugs, she said, which carry a higher risk of overdose due to users not being sure exactly what's in them.

Others in the industry have noted the correlation between opioids and construction doesn't necessarily imply causation. Similar occupational figures have been reported in other provinces, but it has also been pointed out that the construction industry overlaps with another demographic group that is over-represented in terms of opioid deaths: young men.

In the Alberta Health review, 77 per cent of the people killed by opioids were male and most were under the age of 40.

Regardless of the exact causes, the construction industry has taken numerous steps to combat the issue of opioid addiction.

Partnership with Health Canada

"We formed a partnership about a year ago with Health Canada to try to see if we could get a handle on this crisis," Dunn said. "Because it is more so than any other industry affecting the construction industry."

The goal of that partnership is to raise awareness about opioid dependency and reduce the stigma surrounding it.

"So what we've done is we actually started drafting materials — brochures — that are available for our membership across Canada," Dunn said. "We have coasters that we distribute on job sites. We actually have curriculum now that we deliver in our training centres to educate our members about this crisis and also to know how to basically avoid it."

That includes advice on how to deal with pain through methods like physiotherapy or other types of prescription drugs, if they want to avoid opioids altogether.

If an injured worker does decide to use opioids, there are also steps to make that process safer, says Ben Dille with the Workers' Compensation Board of Alberta.

"We know opioids can be an important part of a worker's pain management strategy as they're recovering particularly during that acute phase of recovery," he said.

"But of course, as the healing occurs, narcotic use should discontinue. And the medical evidence definitely suggests that long-term use, especially beyond 12 weeks, can be harmful and can lead to things like dependence and abuse."

With files from Reid Southwick


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