Construction industry to workers battling addiction: ‘We want to help’
Bryan Snow, an electrician from Peabody, knows about the pain opioid addiction can inflict on a family. The 41-year-old spent years battling the disease, not seeking the help he needed, in part because of attitudes in the construction industry.
Snow, drug-free now for seven years, said the industry must work to encourage those struggling with addiction to come forward to get treatment.
“It needs to be out there: ‘If you need help, you can come. It’s OK,’ ” Snow said.
As soaring numbers of construction workers battle addiction, building trades leaders in Boston are launching a conference this week intended to do just that: show contractors and union members how they can help those who are hooked on drugs and alcohol.
“We don’t [push] someone away who gets cancer or diabetes; we shouldn’t get rid of someone who suffers addiction,” said Thomas Gunning III, director of labor relations for the Building Trades Employers’ Association, which is organizing the event.
“It’s a disease of the mind, and we want to help them,” he said.
The goal of the weeklong conference is to help break down the stigma surrounding substance abuse disorder that discourages people in the industry from seeking help, Gunning said.
Organizers are also calling for Narcan to be available at all job sites to help prevent overdose deaths, he added.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh will speak Monday at the conference, according to a spokeswoman; it kicks off at 5 p.m. at IBEW Local 103’s headquarters on Freeport Street in Dorchester.
Among other goals, the conference aims to “provide resources and hope to those currently struggling and save lives,” Gunning said.
Kevin Gill, president of McCusker-Gill Inc., a sheet-metal contractor that employs 200 workers in Hingham, said Narcan will be provided at the company’s fabrication shop.
“It’s a very tough trade. [Workers] may have been given a painkiller to offset an injury, and before they know it, they have a full-blown addiction,” Gill said.
The company also offers access to treatment programs, with most of the cost covered by insurance, he said.
“I want them to be comfortable to come to us to share their problem and work with us to hopefully come up with a solution,” Gill said.
It’s an issue close to Gunning, 33, who spent a decade living with drug and alcohol addiction, he said.
He’s been clean for three years, he said, but had delayed getting help because he feared his colleagues’ reaction. Since going public with his experience, the response has been positive. He said others facing addiction need to know that attitudes are changing and help is available.
“Good people are dying, and the statistics aren’t in our favor,” he said. “We want to save lives, we want to give hope to those who are struggling, and we want to provide a platform with answers and resources to people who need it.”
Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that nearly one-quarter of overdose deaths in a five-year period occurred among people working in construction, where workplace injuries frequently occur. Those workers had higher-than-average rates of overdose deaths, along with farmers and fishermen.
In Massachusetts, 150 of every 150,000 construction workers die an opioid-related death, that report said. A ceremonial 150 Second Stand Down for Recovery, in memory of those who have died, will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday at job sites across the state.
Snow said that he injured his back around the year 2000 and was prescribed an opioid painkiller. He quickly found himself addicted, and once his prescription ended, he was buying opioids from fellow workers and on the street, he said.
He made about $600 a week back then, and he figures he spent at least half of his income on drugs. When he was short, he’d borrow money or resort to stealing tools and equipment to raise enough cash.
Snow missed work, and would return home late when he was out.
He worked for his father’s company at the time, and Snow said his family knew almost immediately he was addicted.
“They knew, and I didn’t,” Snow said. “I was so involved and engulfed in it, at that point, it was normal. I didn’t know there was help, I didn’t know I had addiction issues. . . . I just knew I needed to get opiates. That was the only thing I knew.”
He lived like this for about three years, he said, until he was jailed for six months in 2003 following a conviction for driving under the influence of drugs.
While in jail, he entered recovery, he said.
After his release, he remained in recovery and drug-free until about 2009, when he injured his back again.
Once again, he was prescribed opioid painkillers.
The same pattern emerged, he said: He started missing work and spending his money on drugs, much of which he bought from colleagues at work sites. Snow didn’t seek help, he said, because he was afraid he’d lose his job.
But his union, IBEW Local 103, picked up on the problem and connected him with programs to help him. Since then he’s been in recovery, he is now married, and he recently bought a house with his wife, he said.
He praised his union’s efforts to help members enter recovery and receive help but said the construction industry as a whole must do more to combat the stigma of addiction.
Brian Galvin, a 43-year-old electrician also with IBEW Local 103, said that means changing views about what addiction is.
“I think that there are a lot of people who don’t believe that drug addiction or alcoholism is a disease; they feel it’s a choice people make,” Galvin said.
That stigma, he said, “makes a person afraid to speak about what is going on in their life.”
Galvin developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol as a young teen, became sober at age 18, and returned to substance abuse throughout his 20s.
Galvin, a single father of four children, entered recovery 13 years ago. He said it’s important for those in recovery like himself to share their stories.
“I want to share with people that there is a good story behind this: There can be recovery,” Galvin said. “People can live happy, whole lives.”