Thunder Bay

Ontario's opioid crisis is killing men in the construction industry

Ontario's opioid crisis is ripping through men working in the construction industry, accounting for nearly eight per cent of all opioid-related deaths in the province between 2017 and 2020, a new report suggests. 

Construction workers made up 1 in 13 opioid-related deaths between 2017-2020 in Ontario, report suggests

A man leans up against a fence and watches a machine dig at a construction site.
Jase Watford worked in construction for more than a decade in Western Canada. He blames the industry's 'work hard, play hard' culture for his use of opioids. (Jon Thompson/CBC)

Ontario's opioid crisis is ripping through men working in the construction industry, accounting for nearly eight per cent of all opioid-related deaths in the province between 2017 and 2020, a new report suggests. 

The report found 428 people who worked, or had previously worked in construction died from 2017-2020 in Ontario. That's eight per cent of all opioid-related deaths, even though the profession only employs seven per cent of the province's workforce. 

In 87 per cent of cases, researchers found unregulated fentanyl to have directly contributed to deaths. Those construction workers aged 25 to 44 lost their lives at rate higher than those without construction in their employment history, while 98 per cent of construction workers who died from overdose identified as men.

The report was published by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner, and Public Health Ontario.

The findings are not surprising to Jase Watford, who lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., and for 12 years worked in construction across western Canada as his struggle with addictions deepened.

By the time he became homeless, he was picking up work for a few days on road or residential construction sites, then disappearing for the next week into stimulant and opioid use before starting the cycle again.

"The lifestyle of a construction worker is work hard, play hard," Watford said. "They expect a lot of you and you work as hard as you can. If you play hard, there's the availability to play very, very, very hard. If you don't have good self-control and good boundaries, you can find yourself in a deep hole, very quickly."

Watford says people in Thunder Bay saved his life through treatment.

Following his recovery, he enrolled in school and through city committees, he became a vocal advocate for those experiencing homelessness and addictions.

Watford didn't hesitate when he was asked to contribute his life experience to a study the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network was conducting on the seemingly disproportionate number of people who were dying of opioid overdoses who also worked in the construction industry.

"I have the luxury now of life experience, work experience and education where I'm kind of a hybrid. It's not tokenism, I'm a part of the process and it helps to be able to put a face to the study so I feel really useful in that sort of stuff."

Data from British Columbia and Ontario suggests that workers in the construction industry are disproportionately affected by opioid-related deaths. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Watford calls the results "scarily accurate." He says he has lost friends to the workplace culture where men feel stigmatized to share their struggles, which can further nurture addiction.

"Men don't talk about their feelings so if you're hurting, you don't talk about it because you'll look weak," he said. "I've had people overdose and die who were dealing with dark, dark, dark things. And these are people I talk to day-to-day but I didn't know because it was unacceptable for them."

Health and construction officials in British Columbia have also reported on the prevalence of opioid-related deaths among construction workers there.

In January, Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.'s minister for mental health and addictions said men make up almost 80 per cent of all deaths from illicit drugs in B.C., while nearly 20 per cent of those who died and whose professions were recorded worked in trades, transport or as equipment operators.

British Columbia recently expanded its Tailgate Toolkit workplace mental health and addictions program, specifically aimed at preventing opioid-related deaths in the construction industry, across that province. 

Opioid crisis hits northwestern Ontario hard 

According to Ontario's chief coroner, 118 people died from an opioid-related overdose in the Thunder Bay District Health Unit in 2021. The most recent data suggests Thunder Bay's the opioid death rate in the region is 82.1 per 100,000 people — the highest rate in the province and more than four times the provincial rate.

The district's health unit has already issued 13 public warnings in 2022 over tainted black-market opioid batches, fuelling those local advocates who have been calling on the federal government to introduce safe supply for years. 

Watford says this new study is evidence "of what we already knew," that construction workers are disproportionately living with — and dying from — opioid use in Ontario. He intends to encourage local public health and industry leaders to target those workplaces with specialized strategies made for construction workers.

"They're human beings who are sacrificing their body for the sake of city infrastructure, for our convenience so I can have a nice hot tub or I can have a freeway with no potholes," Watford says. "They're dying doing it so we need to validate who they are and we need to get them to care."

Watford will be sharing his experience at a Public Health Ontario online event on Aug. 30  alongside the report's lead author Dr. Tara Gomes and Ontario Harm Reduction Network director Nick Boyce. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Thompson

Reporter

Jon Thompson is a journalist and author who belongs to Northwestern Ontario. You can contact him by email at jon.thompson@cbc.ca or Twitter @JonSThompson.

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