New app offers construction workers overdose prevention tools

Health Canada-funded app provides info and resources for labourers, the hardest-hit sector in the toxic drug crisis

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A new, free app offers warnings about opioids and links to overdose-prevention resources for those in construction and other labour industries, the sector hardest hit by the toxic drug crisis.

“It’s a really big problem that, unfortunately, is getting worse,” said Effie Argyropoulos, who helped design the new Level Up tool.

“It offers an opportunity to circumvent the stigma associated with getting support around substances.”

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The Health Canada-funded app, designed by the non-profit organization Digital Public Square, was launched in late May and for now targets the three provinces with the highest number of fentanyl poisoning deaths: B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

Those are also the regions, she said, with significant housing shortages, building booms, growing populations, and shortages of skilled trades workers — all factors that put pressure on labourers.

“So we see this as a very necessary prevention measure to disseminate quite far and wide, especially in those three provinces,” said Argyropoulos, the app’s project lead.

“And particularly in Vancouver, the epicentre of this public health emergency.”

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A screenshot from the Level Up app. sun

The overrepresentation of trades workers, mostly men, in B.C.’s toxic drug death tally has been documented for years, and is often tied to their physical jobs and high injury rates.

More than 14,000 British Columbians have been fatally poisoned by illicit drugs since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. Of the victims who were employed at the time of their deaths, more than half worked in the trades, in transport, or as equipment operators, the B.C. Coroners Service says.

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Level Up is publicly available on phones and computers, and is anonymous — it doesn’t ask your name or where you work. It takes users through a series of quick questions that, based on responses, leads them to less or more information about issues such as drug testing, physical pain, mental health, and where to find support services.

Argyropoulos argues it was necessary to find a new way to get concise, confidential advice to labourers, particularly men, who don’t appear to be accessing this information through more traditional channels.

“It offers access to some resources that will either help someone spot a problem or know where to go if they already have a problem,” she said, “in a really non-judgmental, accessible way.”

As you flip through the Level Up screens, the app warns users that substances can put them at risk if they use alone, on the job, or to cope with mental health challenges. It then lists several online assessments for people to determine their current risk.

It also includes links to resources including B.C. Mental Health and Substance Use Services, as well as resources focused on construction workers such as the province’s Tailgate Toolkit Project and Health Canada’s Ease the Burden program.

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The app provides questions workers can ask their doctor if they are prescribed opioids for pain relief, and it links to drug testing services in all three provinces.

In the first few weeks after launching Level Up, it was used by more than 200 people with experience in the labour industry. Nearly three-quarters indicated they had a better understanding of ways to support themselves or others after using the app, Argyropoulos said.

jason watt
Jason Watt says the Level Up information is relevant to any industry, not just the trades. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

The tool could be beneficial to construction workers because it’s anonymous and doesn’t require them to reveal any personal information, said Jason Watt, director of ACCESS BladeRunners, a Vancouver organization that helps at-risk young people get jobs in the trades.

He believes labourers telling co-workers to try out the app could be more successful than other more clinical campaigns, such as warning posters in bus shelters. Watt added, though, that the Level Up information is relevant to any industry, not just the trades.

“The reality is, (substance use) is everywhere, in every part of society,” he said.

Last fall, as the app was being developed, Argyropoulos said 700 people from labour industries were surveyed and the results show how Level Up could help: 40 per cent said they noticed a co-worker might be struggling with substance use; three quarters worried about losing their jobs if they needed to get help for drug use; and nearly half were unsure about supports offered by their workplace.

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If someone doesn’t use substances but is worried that a colleague does, the app provides tips on how to speak with co-workers and offers resources to share with them, such as the provincial alcohol and drug referral service. It explains the overdose-reversing drug naloxone is free at pharmacies, and provides links to training videos on how to administer the medication.

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Level Up project lead Effie Argyropoulos says the new app gives info and resources to trades workers. Photo courtesy Digital Public Square. sun

More work needs to be done, though, in building confidence to support peers, Argyropoulos said. Among the early users of the app, only half said they could start a supportive conversation with a co-worker or employee who is struggling.

The risk of opioid harms for labourers stems from multiple factors, such as painful injuries, loneliness while working on sites away from family, and many overtime shifts — either for financial reasons or because of the labour shortage — that can lead to wanting to decompress after a long day.

Survey results, though, showed nearly half of the labourers would feel uncomfortable discussing substance use with colleagues, and more than half wouldn’t talk to their bosses about it.

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It is early days spreading the word about the new app; so far, some unions, health and safety associations, and a few employers are sharing it, said Argyropoulos. Other future options include putting QR code stickers on helmets and tool boxes, or in washroom stalls at workplaces, which labourers could scan with their phone to easily access the app.

As the app is updated in the future, it will include harm reduction and withdrawal management services in each of the three provinces, Argyropoulos said.

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