More than 9,000 Canadians have died from apparent opioid-related overdoses since 2016 – more than 2,000 between January and June this year alone. The opioid crisis is the most pressing public health crisis in Canada, and figures show that the number of deaths this year is on track to surpass the number of apparent overdose deaths in 2017. The federal government says that 11 people die from an opioid-related overdose every day.
The reasons for opioid use are complex and varied. Canada doesn’t just have a single opioid crisis. There is a crisis of fentanyl-laced drugs poisoning the heroin supply, a crisis caused by our prohibitionist drug policies and a crisis that flows from criminalizing drug use.
Often overlooked is the role that workplace injury plays in exacerbating this crisis. Chad Robbins, a 32-year-old construction worker from Orillia, Ontario, died from a fentanyl overdose in November of last year. Global News reported that his addiction started after he fell from a roof and was seriously injured on the job. His body was found by his 5-year-old daughter.
According to government figures, 77 percent of people who have died from apparent opioid-related overdoses were men, most between 30 and 39 years old.
In Surrey, British Columbia, one report showed that 81 percent of people who died were men, and the victims most often worked in construction. The epidemic is most severe in British Columbia, where there were 754 drug overdose deaths from January to June of this year.
Ontario is struggling too. In 2017, more than 1,250 people died from apparent opioid-related overdose, and it’s hitting smaller cities particularly hard.
A study from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that Massachusetts workers in industries with higher rates of injuries, like construction, were six times more likely than average to die from an opioid overdose.
The Ontario-based Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic (IWC) recommends a holistic approach that centers on individual drug users and recognizes that improving workplace health and safety is a key factor in ameliorating at least some of the crisis. From 2001 to 2010, the IWC notes that 40 percent more injured workers were being prescribed opioids for pain management.
Workplace injury in Canada remains steadily on the rise. At Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance board (WSIB), injury claims have risen by 33 percent. Over the same time, the staff who manage cases has declined by 9 percent. Critical injuries in Ontario’s construction industry have been steadily increasing. Construction is Canada’s deadliest industry.
Many public health agencies encourage doctors to prescribe painkillers less. The WSIB has taken this approach too, and has reduced the number of claims for opioids by 47 percent. The IWC says that this has lead to higher costs to individuals to pay for their therapies and stronger medication. Workers are often told to go back to work before they’re healed, exacerbating their injuries.
Low levels of unionization rates, cuts to Employment Insurance and zero-drug policies at work sites all contribute to make it difficult for workers to recover from injuries. And while it would be difficult to imagine a government enacting policies to address all these issues, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives seem to be doing their best to do everything wrong.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford opposes safe injection sites. His government brought in a new approval framework that caps the number of allowed sites in the province, and forces service providers to crawl through red tape, despite having already cleared many federal and provincial regulatory hurdles.
While Ford’s government has used measures to inhibit these life-saving services, he has declared a war on so-called red tape for businesses, undoing many regulations meant to protect workers’ health and safety. Under the “Making Ontario Open For Business Act,” sick days have been reduced from 10 (two paid) to three (none paid), and workers who call in sick will have to get a doctor’s note to back up their claim.
And despite the evidence that shows that the threat of being investigated ensures employers take health and safety more seriously, Ford’s government imposed a hiring freeze on workplace inspectors, limiting how many inspections they can undertake each year.
In legislation introduced in early December, the Progressive Conservatives intend to reduce requirements for guardrails on assembly lines and raised platforms in auto and auto parts plants, remove public institutions from common construction collective agreements and cut regulations for engineers who operate boilers and pressure vessel plants.
They’ve also reduced employer contributions to WSIB by 30 percent, which will exacerbate the benefits problem even further.
Health benefits reductions and unsafe work conditions will only worsen the opioid crisis. Ontario’s politicians may choose to ignore these connections, but their callous approach to keeping Ontarians safe, both on the job and as they use drugs, is going to result in more death.