January Workplace Opioids Event May Serve as Change Springboard for MO

By on October 31, 2018

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

Enough with the stories of tragic deaths and inspirational recoveries from opioids: It’s time to deal with the issues head on, using practical best practice approaches, as any other healthcare issue is addressed. That  message came out loud and clear this week at the meeting of the planning group for “Opioids and the Workplace,” (click to download flyer) a two-day event scheduled for January 10 and 11, 2019 at UMSL.

The January program could have become just another event on opioids and mental health in the workplace — a regurgitation of the statistics and emotional stories. But those involved in the planning — emergency medicine doctors, union leaders, first responders, insurers, corporate HR types, public policy advocates, halfway house and treatment experts, researchers, government officials (and ConstructForSTL) — were never satisfied with that being the outcome of their effort.

The immediate objective became to create something transformative, a “best practices” instructional program that gives employers and others addressing workplace opioid and mental health issues practical tools. Ultimately the goal is to produce a replicable program that can be rolled out statewide, as well as training a network of workplace resource persons, who would serve as what one member of the planning group describes as “traffic cops” — not health professionals, but rather lay people with a high-level knowledge of the issues, their impact on individuals, families, and organizations and available resources in the community.

Lose the Drama, Prepare for Action

The planners of the UM Extension program recognized that it was time to move the conversation from the grim statistics and stories that have inundated the news to practical approaches that recognize that workplace opioid and mental health issues are public health issues that are not going away. Two years ago, Construction Forum STL hosted a program titled, “Opioids: A Building Epidemic”. That program was covered by Bloomberg News and Forbes, and served as a springboard for other efforts, including the UM Extension program. Doug Swanson, field specialist in labor and workforce development at the University of Missouri Extension (UME) was researching topics for his monthly labor law program and came across the press on the CFSTL effort.

We all know stories that hit close to home. In addition to clinicians and on-the-ground substance abuse workers, the panel for the CFSTL presentation included Don Willey, business manager for Laborers Local 110. Don told the story of his son and his nephew, who died of heroin overdoses within a two-day timeframe. Don has told that story in many settings and appeared in a video for United Way. In promoting the program I told (with her blessing) the story of my older daughter Lily, who is in recovery from oxycodone abuse.

Recently an obituary for Madelyn Linsenmeir, a young Vermont mother, who came from a strong middle class family and died from her addiction, went viral on social media. Brandon del Pozo,  police chief of Burlington Vermont, a Harvard-educated former New York cop, wrote a Facebook post regarding the editorial that began with, “I have a problem with this obituary.”

“Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew? Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves…

“So Maddie, in death, has given us a final gift, thanks to her family’s moving tribute to her: the gift of focusing our attention for a moment. Thank you, Maddie and family…

“The science is clear. We have medicines and protocols that work to effectively reduce the risks of death by overdose or other addiction-related causes. If you’re ignoring or denying them, then I’ll wonder if your tears for Maddie are crocodile tears.”

Chief del Pozo then described some of the evidence-based practice that  first responders, medical professionals, and others in his region are adapting to turn the tide.

It’s an Illness… Really

My family has a history of heart disease and stroke. My family has a history of cancer. My family has a history of mental health issues. If you had a family member or employee with cancer or a heart condition you would, most likely, do everything in your power to help that person receive treatment. If the condition was chronic you would accommodate them in your home or business. When it comes to mental health, we have a problem. Even the way that media covers substance abuse is different. In fact, St. Louis first responders are working on educating local media outlets not to exacerbate the stigmatization of opioid abuse through their coverage.

My daughter Lily is fortunate, in that she works as a cook in the hospitality industry (which is number one for mental health/substance abuse issues: construction is second). Her boss is well aware that she is in recovery. He supports her strongly and has an eye out for aberrant behavior (as do I). So far she has worked her program and sees a mental health counselor on a regular basis.

If she were in construction and she failed a drug test she would probably be forced to sit at home — probably the worst thing to do to someone with stress, depression and mental health issues. If she was taking suboxone she might be banished from jobsites, despite Federal law which mandates that she be entitled to accommodation.

Practical Approaches

So what’s an employer to do? That is the question the planning group is trying to answer in developing “Opioids and the Workplace”. Based on its success, the objective is for UME to roll it out throughout the state. In addition, at the group’s suggestion, UME is developing a program to train company/union resource persons, who can in turn help employees and their families find the resources they need.

UME and the organizers are looking for sponsors and program advertisers to help get this pilot effort off the ground. Click the links for the flyers, or contact me for more information at tom@constructforstl.org; 314-880-2063.


About Tom Finan