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Boilermakers National Health and Welfare Fund’s benefit helps apprentice find sobriety

Don't be afraid to get help and talk to people about what's going on in your life.  There is help for you.

John Smith

Editor’s note: The Reporter is referring to the Boilermaker in this article as *John Smith to protect his identity

It started with just one pill—only a bit of fun with his friends. But that pill became dozens, which took an 18-year-old down a path he didn’t expect. And after nine years of opioid abuse, *John Smith’s life spiraled out of control.  Now the fourth-year, 29-year-old Boilermaker apprentice has a story to tell—one of addiction and recovery.

Smith didn’t take opioids simply for a good time, he was outrunning demons, too. His cousin had committed suicide and he’d been the one to find the body—a tragedy he’ll never forget.

Fast forward eight years. Smith, now with a wife and new baby, indentured into the Boilermakers’ apprenticeship program. He was still taking opioids. He felt he “needed” them.

“The job we do is very hard labor,” he says. “You’re on your knees all day. You’re working until your body can’t work anymore, and then you keep working. You go home and look for a way to deal with the pain. Then you’re hooked.”

One in four people who use opioids become addicted.

Center for Disease Control

Smith is not alone. A recent study published by the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that “in comparison to all other professions, construction workers had the highest prevalence of misusing prescription opioids.”

The physical nature of construction work can drive misuse. CPWR, the Center for Construction Research and Training, found that the construction industry has one of the highest injury rates compared to other industries.

Compounding the problem, says Chris Crain, Executive Director of CPWR and Director of Safety and Health for the North American Building Trades Unions, workers in the construction industry often have to go to the jobsite, even if their body is nursing an injury.

“You have pain. You go to the doctor and they prescribe opioids. People have been tricked into thinking these are the only way to manage pain,” she says. “Doctors are finally coming around.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, one in four people who use opioids become addicted. Many don’t know how or where to find help. Some won’t admit it’s a problem. Some are ashamed to speak up, fearing retribution.

Smith says he witnesses that stigma in the field.  He perceives an unwritten rule in the building trades to not talk about addiction.

“You’re kinda like a wimp if you admit you have a problem. With anything,” he says. “What I hear is ‘You’re a man, just grow up.’”

Smith says that construction workers want to think they can handle addiction on their own. That they’re scared to ask for help because of the potential for ridicule.

During his first year as a Boilermaker apprentice, nine years after he took his first opioid, he found himself unable to manage his unraveling life. He was missing work and not keeping up on apprenticeship studies. Through it all Smith kept telling his wife he had his opioid use under control—even though he knew he needed help.

One morning, he didn’t have any money and had no way to get to work. And that evening, he had a quarterly apprenticeship meeting at his local, where the business manager and the apprentice instructors check in with apprentices to confirm they’re on track in the program.

“I was the last apprentice called in. They’re like ‘what’s going on? You’re not showing up on the job, you’re not doing work, and you’re not meeting your quota.’”

Smith decided he had to be honest. He knew he needed to stop using—yet he had no idea how to quit.

“I told them I had a serious drug problem and I needed help,” he says.

That’s when his business manager informed him of a substance abuse program benefit through the Boilermakers National Health and Welfare Fund. Smith took down all the information and, two days later, worked up the courage to call the Fund's Substance Abuse Crisis Line (877-244-3572) and was referred to a preferred facility approved by the Fund.

“I found rehab to be welcoming. A cool place,” Smith says. “To have someone I could talk to and relate to was really nice.”

During his 30-day stay he attended classes, talked to counselors and learned more about substance use disorder and how to beat it. Even equipped with new information and a will to stay clean, during his first three months out of rehab he faced challenges.

“I ran into demons that said, ‘go this way or go that way.’ But instead I went to meetings when I needed to,” Smith says. “And after six months, I didn’t even think about it anymore.”

Crain from CPWR says it takes “five days to become dependent on opiates. And science tells us they don’t work as well as Tylenol for muscular pain. Before the opioid industry tricked America, they were used for a couple of days post-surgery or for a broken bone.”

She says NABTU and CPWR are working on educating those in the construction industry and are working to destigmatize substance use disorder.

“We didn’t create this problem, and we didn’t go to school to learn how to deal with this; but it’s affecting our industry,” she says. “We’re really playing catch-up here.”

It’s been over two years since Smith entered rehabilitation, made possible by the Boilermakers National Health and Welfare Fund’s benefit plan. He’s not quiet about his recovery or his former addiction, either. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about it, because he’s committed to helping his union brothers and sisters who may be fighting what he used to fight—substance abuse.

“Don’t be afraid to get help and talk to people about what’s going on in your life,” Smith says. “There is help for you. Being sober isn’t a minute, hourly or daily task. It’s an every-second task.  Keep focused and stay focused.”

Substance abuse is a safety issue that affects everyone on the jobsite, not just the person who’s using. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone you work with has a substance use disorder.

Often, if they’re addicted to opioids, they seem off. Sluggish. They may be having a hard time doing duties they normally do. And others on the job may be covering for them. Working with someone who is impaired is not safe no matter what substance they’re using.

It’s hard to ask for help. It’s also hard to ask someone you work with if they need help. But your life and the lives of your coworkers depend on it. If you or one of your union brothers or sisters has a substance use disorder, there’s help.

Boilermakers National Health & Welfare Fund Substance Abuse Treatment Program covers:

  • Paid travel expenses for patient and one support person
  • 30 days of inpatient rehabilitation
  • 11 months of continued care and support following inpatient rehabilitation
  • Minimal out-of-pocket costs with successful completion.

To see a full description of benefits and limitations, refer to your 2023 Summary Plan Description available at www.bnf-kc.com

Call the Boilermakers Substance Abuse Crisis Line