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INNOVATOR Q&A

Tackling the opioid crisis from within the construction industry

A Rhode Island outreach worker holds a box of Narcan, the nasal spray used to reverse overdoses.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Accidental overdoses have been on the rise in Rhode Island, where data around the opioid epidemic has been trending in the wrong direction for the last several years.

Andrew Cortés, the founder and executive director of Building Futures Rhode Island, sees the toll addictive opioids like carfentanil and fentanyl are taking on the construction industry. In fact, one of every five opioid-related deaths were found in construction workers.

“We knew there was a disproportional impact on the industry,” said Cortés, who started the apprenticeship program in 2007, and explained that he thought there was “no better sector” than the unionized construction industry to attempt to develop models to address the crisis.

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In 2023, Cortés plans on boosting Building Future’s programs that support those suffering from addiction, those seeking and in recovery, and training more workers to be fluent in using life-saving medications like Naloxone, which can reverse an overdose, on any jobsite.

Q: What has Building Futures done to tackle the opioid epidemic so far?

Cortés: We were one of the first recovery friendly workplaces designated in Rhode Island and we are actively trying to destigmatize these issues. We proudly display our sharps lockboxes, we distribute Narcan, and we’re leveraging existing training. We want to integrate opioid awareness and the training curriculum directly within the apprenticeship programs as a standard offering.

Whe really started the beginning stages of this work in 2019. We partnered with the state and applied for and received a national sector emergency grant from the Department of Labor to springboard these efforts. That grant is over, but it allowed us the resources to develop trainings.

Building Futures RI founder and executive director Andrew Cortes, left, conducts an opioid awareness training with Michael Sabitoni, the president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, right, and others.Kevin Ferias

Have you seen any impact so far?

We’ve reached more than 900 people at this point and know that our efforts of even just distributing Narcan is helping save lives. Anecdotally, one of our own participants took our training and saw a family member in crisis. They had the Narcan we gave them available and saved their own family member’s life and ultimately helped that person get into recovery.

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But we’ve lost our own graduates, too.

There might be people in the industry now, or are soon heading into the industry, that might think they won’t “need” this kinds of training. Is everyone required to take opioid awareness training now?

Yes, they are required in our pre-apprenticeship program. It’s not just for those who have been through the throws of addiction or are in recovery. The program also talks about how to support people in recovery and a general overview of the issues that are impacting people with substance abuse disorder.

What is a “job site shutdown?”

That’s a borrowed term from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who started conducting these job site shutdowns in Boston. He’s been in long-term recovery himself and wanted to give people a moment to stop and reflect on what’s happening, honor those who are struggling, and do it on a full job site level.

During these “shutdowns,” where everyone isn’t working for a few minutes, it’s costing somebody money, but where available resources for those considering recovery can be shared. These site-related actions should occur on a broader scale.

A used needle lies next to Narcan nasal spray on a football field in Roxbury in September 2022.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

What’s the next phase of this program going to look like?

The next phases of our work are really to develop recovery communities within the trade unions to better support workers. A lot of the locals have employee assistance programs, but some of them don’t. Some only have peer recovery specialists that are simply volunteers. If you’re one of three people covering an entire local with a large membership in crisis, you’re going to get burnt out. Then it’s going to be very difficult to maintain that level of effort that’s needed. In other cases, it could become an unfair burden if they don’t already have the adequate professional supports or enough people to simply handle the volume. So we’re looking at the kind of supports we need to provide to those who are working with those currently in recovery.

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In another area: some local union halls host Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly, while others do not. We’re conducting a gap analysis and trying to figure out where there could be a shared serve model to help individual or most unions.

What challenges do you face in building this new program?

It’s a new program, so it has lots of challenges in building basic infrastructure. But how do you reach workers in any sort of underground economy? We know there will be language barriers, so we will have to appropriately scale.

When you founded Building Futures in 2007, did you ever think that the opioid epidemic would be one of the biggest challenges you’d have to face?

Absolutely not. I was looking to connect low-income individuals and disenfranchised neighborhoods to great career pathways that are available through a training-based infrastructure. Nobody expected this crisis to reach the levels that it has and the consequences are devastating. We don’t ever want to lose another graduate. But we’ll have to tackle it head on to get there.

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The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.