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Opioid epidemic and COVID-19 a deadly combination for struggling B.C. workers

Warren Frey
Opioid epidemic and COVID-19 a deadly combination for struggling B.C. workers

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, British Columbia’s other public health epidemic rages on.

Work to Wellness CEO Diana Vissers and Boreal Wellness Centres registered clinical counsellor Mike Mathers were the presenters of a recent BC Municipal Safety Association (BCMSA) webinar titled Exploring substance use and impacts during COVID-19, which examined how both COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic have impacted British Columbians, including those in construction.

COVID-19 exacerbated an opioid epidemic that was already taking a heavy toll on the province, Vissers said.

“Things looked like they were improving and then when the pandemic hit a number of things happened. People who were struggling but working needed more support and services which weren’t easily accessible,” Vissers said.

“What we’re seeing now is people are really at a breaking point in terms of their stress levels, particularly in the last six weeks. We have about a six-month reserve in our emotional bank account and people are feeling a lot of despair and there’s a lot of suffering,” Mathers said during the webinar.

By August 2020 opioid deaths in B.C. had exceeded all the opioid deaths in 2019, he added.

“The good news is that a lot of people are reaching out right now.”

Additional problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic include people leaving jobsites due to withdrawal symptoms and difficulty maintaining a safe drug supply due to closed borders, Vissers added.

“People on jobsites are being managed differently, as are their home environments. Those who are living alone are even more isolated,” Vissers said.

She added the stigma around drug use is higher than with other mental health issues, particularly in the construction industry.

“There’s still a belief that it’s a personal choice or a character flaw rather than a health condition. Those who are struggling are less likely to talk about their substance use at work than they would other mental health issues,” Vissers said.

The transitional nature of the construction industry also has an impact on addressing addiction issues, she said.

“Healthy people mean healthy workers and healthy business, but in construction so often there are multiple employers on one jobsite and since things are transient it takes a special approach,” Vissers said.

Overdoses affect not only construction workers but the environment surrounding worksites, she added.

“I’d be very interested to see if construction organizations will train their employees to have naloxone on hand. In an area where overdoses happen it would be an interesting statement to train health and safety people or have conversations and toolbox talks about what an overdose looks like,” she said.

Vissers praised both the BCMSA and the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) for their work addressing both mental health and addiction.

“(BCCSA executive director) Mike McKenna is really exploring all the options. I’ve had conversations with him about the resources they have to put behind developing additional tools and they’re aware of the gap,” she said. “The BCMSA has also taken a leading role in a project I’m involved with to acknowledge the employer’s role in employee mental health and in taking a proactive approach.

“From my point of view the best thing an employer can do is get as much information and as many options as possible in front of people,” Vissers added during the BCMSA webinar. “If you’re noticing a work culture issue around substance use, if that’s a problem, then address it head on and make really clear what your policies and procedures are around that.

“Having the conversation in a work setting, making a toolkit available says ‘we care about the people who work here,’” Vissers said.


Follow the author on Twitter @JOCFrey.

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