Why some men in the trades are dying of opioid overdoses
Workers say isolation, lifestyle and physicality of the job pushes some to drug use
This story is part of a series called The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta. Join the discussion, or read more about the series here.
Doing drugs in a porta-potty while working on Calgary construction sites used to be common for Mike.
He's an equipment operator, although he's in a treatment facility right now. CBC News is not sharing his last name because he fears he will never work again if people know what he's gone through.
Whether it was cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl, Mike says he needed it to be comfortable throughout the day.
"I wouldn't be able to put in an eight-hour workday without it, just because I was so dependent on it," he said.
"With the trades, there's a lot of hard work and physical work where you're sore and tired and in pain, and you have to be able to get up and go to work the next day and do it all over again."
He's far from alone.
Three out of four people who die of overdoses in Alberta are men, according to provincial statistics. In 2017, the province reviewed all opioid-related deaths and found that of those with occupations listed, 53 per cent had employment in trades, transport or equipment operation.
A Health Canada campaign, which drew data from provincial reports in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario also indicates that about 30 to 50 per cent of those employed at the time of their death, were employed in trades.
They're people who are isolated in camps in the oilpatch up north or working on construction sites in downtown Calgary.
The big paycheques help to enable the addiction, Mike says. And for the most part, access is not a problem.
Workers describe the physical pain of working in the trades as a reason for moving toward drugs. There's also the lifestyle that comes with working at the camps.
"After a while, you end up just doing it," said Al Radtke, who is now 14 years sober.
He was once an ironworker and welder in the oilpatch and remembers frequently heading to the bar after a shift.
"I ended up just doing it until I'm hiding in my camp room smoking crack cocaine by myself and going through psychosis and getting it delivered to camp."
It's common knowledge drug use is happening on job sites, he says. He ended up being fired after not showing up for work.
Fear of job loss
For most workers, that's the biggest thing keeping them from seeking help. That by bringing their addiction to light, they might lose their job.
Richard Kelloway says he sees it all the time. He's an abatement technician who lives and works in Fort McMurray.
"Nobody wants to keep an active addiction or a person who's an active [addict] employed. It takes time and money," he said. "You're a dime a dozen. There's more people that are going to fill your boots."
He was heavily addicted to cocaine before he sought help.
"My bottom was moving into a brand new apartment, paying $5,000 to do so, not buying groceries for a month, not even getting internet, and sitting in my apartment by myself doing drugs," he said.
"People are definitely rundown when they're doing 21-day shifts. It's a big toll on the mind and the body. Being away from family is definitely hard on people.… My leisure time was filled with drinking and partying with friends."
But as awareness rises, some people within the industry are advocating for change.
One of the solutions has been drug testing. But Mike says there are creative ways to pass those.
"There's kits you can buy where you can use someone's urine that's clean, stuff like that," he said.
Terry Parker works with Building Trades of Alberta, a group representing 18 trade unions and more than 60,000 workers in the province.
He agrees drug testing is not the answer but says hundreds of men have been banned from worksites because of discovered drug or alcohol use.
And with an ongoing labour shortage in the oilpatch, it's all the more pressing to find a better way forward.
The group has created a program called "Building Resiliency" with the help of a $650,000 grant from the provincial government.
It offers optional online training modules for workers to raise awareness of mental health and addiction and provides resources for workers to become "peer supports" for their colleagues.
They're also creating a website workers can access 24/7 to anonymously receive guidance and advice on substance use.
Parker says he hopes it reduces stigma and the fear of reprisal.
"But we're also saying, 'you know what, if there's a brother or sister out there that you suspect of potentially using drugs and alcohol, that you can have those open discussions,'" he said.
Anything to help bring addiction out of the shadows is a good start, according to the men CBC News spoke with.
But it's not a simple problem to solve.
'A second chance'
For Radtke, something like detox referral services or onsite counselling would make a difference.
"Where it's safe and secure and you can walk in the door without being judged."
More than anything, the men want others to understand they're not bad people. Many of them have lost friends to drugs. Some have lost everything.
"It's sad and it's embarrassing and shameful," said Mike.
"You hear about a lot of people's stories that go from being somebody or having everything good in their life. And then all of a sudden, before you know it, you're in a situation that you didn't even see coming."
Kelloway says some good people helped to set him on the right path. He's spent almost three months in a treatment facility, and it's not easy. But he's hopeful.
"Give people a second chance … treat them like a human being," he said.
"The second they get off those drugs and get their mind back, the things that they accomplish will astound you."
- A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed some data to Health Canada. In fact, a Health Canada campaign had used data from provincial reports in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, so it did not represent a full national picture.Feb 09, 2023 8:48 AM MT
With files from Carla Turner