BCCSA spearheads project to investigate substance use in construction

The board of directors of the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) recently approved a project to study the impact of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) on the organization’s members across the province.

Executive director Mike McKenna says the BCCSA will provide funding and fiduciary oversight for the initiative as well as “construction industry intelligence and connectivity.”

A four-man team from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA), a research centre for mental health and substance use at Simon Fraser University (SFU), will do the project’s heavy lifting.

They will identify the main issues, analyze data, do literature research and interviews and develop a blueprint that will address construction’s AOD challenges.

“We hope to get the project going this summer,” said McKenna. “The data and industry intelligence that we gather will be helpful to many people in construction.”

Construction has felt the impact of AOD use, misuse and abuse in different ways.

For example, incidents and injuries, which are disproportionately high among construction workers, are closely correlated with the effects of AOD abuse.

In addition, construction workers have relatively more substance use disorders than workers in other industries, with apprentices and young workers at particularly high risk.

The BCCSA-CARMHA initiative, which will look at all forms of substance use, extends the work the alliance has done to address opioid-related risks. 

Phase one of the project will consist of a literature review, interviews of key informants and the development of practical interventions.

Phase two will distribute and market results and recommendations, called the Blueprint for Action, and develop webinar and safety-related training that addresses AOD.

“We know all the symptoms of AOD abuse, and many potential causes have been mooted,” said McKenna. “For example, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, only about one-quarter of Canadian employees feel comfortable talking about mental health concerns with their employers.”

In addition, he said, many workers lead a grim, nose-to-the-grindstone existence. They get up early, go to the jobsite, work hard, go home late, pick up a six-pack and some take-out, eat, drink, go to bed and then get up next morning and do it all over again.

“As they get older, many of them accumulate not just the normal aches and pains of aging, but also the effect of workplace injuries and wear and tear,” said McKenna. “Many of them start popping pills to help them get through the day.”

The idea for the program came from a conversation between McKenna and Paul Farnan, a Vancouver physician who specializes in occupational and addiction medicine.

Farnan had spoken at BCCSA safety conferences and knew about construction’s substance use problems. 

“There’s much incorrect information floating around and accepted uncritically about the B.C. construction industry and substance use,” said Farnan. “We need good, evidence-based research on AOD with which BCCSA can develop policies that address the problem and focus on a solution.”

In addition to Farnan, the other members of the AOD research group are Carson McPherson, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Cedars at Cobble Hill, an addiction treatment centre; Paul Sobey, an occupational addiction physician in the Lower Mainland; and Julian Somers, an SFU clinical psychologist and director of CARMHA.

“The project will identify the main areas of AOD risk in construction in B.C. and to what extent they differ by such variables as location, age and occupation,” said Somers. “We’ll speak to a variety of people with different perspectives – construction workers, employers, safety officers, job finders. We expect to interview over 100 individuals.”

Somers says the investigators will be looking closely for regional variations in substance use.

“There are regional differences in substance use everywhere in the world, whether a jurisdiction is big or small,” he said. “They’re the result of the presence of regional sub-cultures, variations in tastes and preferences and the cost of different substances by area and different histories.”

The BCCSA-CARMHA program joins a similar B.C. initiative called the Tailgate Toolkit Project (TTP).

TTP, which is delivered by the Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) in partnership with Vancouver Island Health Authority, is aimed at combatting overdoses on the Island.

VICA CEO Rory Kulmala says the BC Coroner Service reported that males accounted for four out of five overdose deaths in 2020. Furthermore, as many as one-half of employed individuals who died from toxic drug poisonings worked in trades and transport. 

“Our goal is to build important relationships that grow industry capacity to provide education and awareness and resources to help construction workers who are suffering from addiction,” said Kulmala.