Island Health targets stigma and substance use in trades workplaces

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The toxic drug crisis disproportionately affects men aged 30–59 in B.C. who are employed in trades and transport. Trevor Botkin has been employed in construction for 25 years and is using his experience with addiction to support the Tailgate Toolkit Project — a harm reduction program specifically for construction and trades workers.

“I was struggling to get to work, just spending every ounce of money I had on drugs,” Botkin said about his struggle with addiction. “I didn’t think there was a way out – and I had been contemplating the ultimate way out for a long time.”

He has received treatment and now works on the project with the Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) and Island Health, with funds from the province. 

“The culture in the trades definitely nurtures this sense that we’re tough and immortal and invincible and we can work through anything,” Botkin said. “We live hard and we work hard and we play hard. And when you start to fail, you don’t want to be that person who can’t handle it because you stick out like a sore thumb.”

According to the BC Coroners Service, 81 per cent of toxic drug fatalities last year were men — of those who were employed, about half worked in trades. Island Health said various reasons are given for the statistic, including self medicating for physical and emotional pain. 

“The aim is to develop a toolkit that is designed to appeal to the character, the culture and the nuances of people who work in construction and the trades,” said Rory Kulmala, CEO of VICA. “The idea is to produce awareness, training and access to resources – and ultimately to reduce the stigma.”

Botkin is now the executive director of HeroWork Victoria, a charity that does renovation work for other charities. He also sits on the Tailgate Toolkit advisory committee, which meets regularly to inform the toolkit’s development. The committee includes leaders from the trades, transport and forestry industries, along with representatives from industry associations, harm reduction organizations, trades training programs, the First Nations Health Authority and Island Health.

Phase one of the initiative, led by VICA project manager Emily Percival-Paterson, recently finished. This included in-depth interviews with members of the construction community who have experience of drug use, or are in supervisory positions and responsible for implementing harm reduction measures.

“Stigma is a real barrier for many people who use substances and are working in the trades and transport sectors,” said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions. “The Tailgate Toolkit Project is such a timely and important resource. It will help to remove the stigma that still surrounds addiction while at the same time empowering people to reach out for the help they need and deserve.”

After phase one, the focus is on developing the toolkit resources. “It’s about creating stronger communities, saving lives and having a better workforce – linking people to resources and the help that they need so they come back to their team stronger,” said Arlene Hogan, Island Health’s regional overdose response coordinator.

The tools include a live or virtual talk delivered by VICA’s harm reduction team, focused on substance use and mental health, the toxic drug supply, harm reduction and recovery resources. Other highlights include training for those in supervisory positions, along with digital and print assets such as posters that can be displayed at job sites. VICA is also partnering with the Umbrella Society to provide a support group for those working in construction who are struggling with substance use issues. Weekly group meetings are held on Thursdays from 7–8 p.m. and no registration is required.

While VICA’s geographic coverage includes Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, Kulmala is keen to share the toolkit broadly. “Our goal is to package this project in a way so that it can be applied in any health region,” Kulmala said. “We’re not doing this to own it – we’re doing this so that we can make a healthy workforce.”

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