Fostering a healthy workforce: Tailgate Toolkit partnership tackles substance use, offers supports for tradespeople

A few years ago, Trevor Botkin felt near the end of his lengthy battle with addiction. “I was struggling to get to work, just spending every ounce of money I had on drugs,” says Botkin, who has been employed in the construction industry for more than 25 years. “I didn’t think there was a way out – and I had been contemplating the ultimate way out for a long time.”

Now, following treatment, Botkin is using his experience to support the Tailgate Toolkit Project – an innovative program that provides access to harm reduction services and supports for those working in construction and other trades. The Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA) leads the toolkit project in partnership with Island Health; the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions provided funding.

“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,” says Rory Kulmala, VICA’s CEO. “The idea is to produce awareness, training and access to resources – and ultimately to reduce the stigma.”

It’s a timely effort, given that the drug-poisoning crisis has disproportionately harmed those working in the trades. According to the BC Coroner’s Service, 81% of toxic drug fatalities in 2020 involved men, and a majority were aged 30-59. Of those who were employed and suffered a fatal drug poisoning, about half worked in the trades and transport.

Various reasons are given for this outcome, including self-medicating for physical and emotional pain, and a “cowboy culture” that encourages traditional ideas of masculinity. “The culture in the trades definitely nurtures this sense that we’re tough and immortal and invincible, and we can work through anything,” says Botkin. “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.”

“Stigma is a real barrier for many people who use substances and are working in the trades and transport sectors,” says 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.” 

Today, Botkin is 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 wrapped up. 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. 

Now 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,” says 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, and 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 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 p.m. to 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,” says Kulmala. “We’re not doing this to own it – we’re doing this so that we can make a healthy workforce.”

In May 2021, Island Health launched an awareness campaign for men who use drugs to help prevent overdose deaths and support men to break the silence about their drug use. The campaign is aimed at men, primarily those employed in skilled trades and transport. For more information, please visit the news release