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Construction firm launches program to aid addicted workers

The prescription drug Oxycodone, an opioid painkiller.
The prescription drug Oxycodone, an opioid painkiller. AP photo/file

Overdoses are the leading cause of workplace deaths in Massachusetts. And among Massachusetts workers who died of opioid-related overdoses from 2011 to 2015, a quarter worked in construction.

With these startling facts in mind, Commodore Builders, a Boston construction management firm, on Monday rolled out a program to help its employees and their family members navigate the addiction treatment system.

In a first-of-its-kind arrangement, the Herren Project, a national nonprofit focused on addiction, will offer Commodore employees immediate assistance locating appropriate treatment and a guiding hand through their path to recovery.

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But the folks on the job sites, whose pains and injuries so often lead to addiction, won’t benefit. That’s because Commodore doesn’t employ construction crews: they work for subcontractors. Commodore’s 170 employees hold managerial and administrative jobs.

Tom Comeau, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said that while Commodore can’t directly help construction workers because they’re someone else’s employees, he hopes his company’s program will inspire action throughout the industry.

“Someone has to take steps and create an example and lead out here,” Comeau said. “If it works well, it can be a model for other subcontractors and unions.”

Comeau said that just this year a friend lost a son, who worked in construction, to an opioid overdose. “It’s heart-wrenching to see the impact on a family,” he said.

Commodore, a mid-sized construction management firm with $400 million in annual revenue, provided workers with some educational programming and made sure that the overdose-reversing drug naloxone is available on job sites. But, Comeau said, “We wanted to do more to change the outcome of the epidemic.”

Helping spur and shape that effort was Vice President Lisa Ulbrich, a longtime treatment advocate who is in recovery herself. Ulbrich already knew people at the Herren Project, which was founded 2011 by former basketball player Chris Herren.

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Commodore has entered into a one-year contract with the Herren Project to provide a set of services. Both parties declined to disclose the dollar amount.

Under the new program, Commodore’s 170 employees — plus any relative in their household — will have access to a hotline operated by the Herren Project. People can call, text, or reach out online. They will be connected with a trained clinician who will assess the situation, develop a plan tailored to the individual, and immediately take the person to an appropriate treatment setting.

“People don’t know where to turn, what places are quality places,” said Herren executive director Kevin Mikolazyk. “We’ll be connecting the dots, walking people through the whole process. ... As a nonprofit we’ve excelled at that — finding people quality care regardless of their resources.”

The Herren Project clinician will continue working with clients after the initial placement, guiding them through the stages of recovery. If needed, the project will identify a reputable sober home for the last months of recovery.

“We’re fully prepared to walk with them on their journey to recovery as long as it takes,” Mikolazyk said.

Health insurance is expected to pay for the treatment itself, and all Commodore employees are insured. But if any household member lacks coverage, Commodore will pay for any medically necessary care, Ulbrich said.

While undergoing treatment, the worker’s job will be secure. And if they relapse after they return to work, Ulbrich said, “We will wrap our arms around them and make sure they get their treatment.” Their jobs will be safe as long they are under a doctor’s care, trying to get better.

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A case manager will help the entire family cope with the crisis. “A lot of times it’s the family that reaches out first,” Mikolazyk said. “We have a family support track to work with families to teach them, engage them, help them learn how to set boundaries, how to support their loved one into recovery.”

The arrangement with Commodore marks the first time the Herren Project has entered into such a partnership, Mikolazyk said. But he said Herren has plenty of practice providing the services Commodore seeks: “It’s what we do on a daily basis.”

Between employees and their family members, Herren expects to serve 100 people over the course of the year.

Told of Commodore’s program, Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, praised the effort but noted that it comes late in the process. By the time someone needs addiction treatment, “Already so many strategies have been missed to prevent them from getting there,” she said.

That means not just reducing injuries, but also looking at workplace stressors, such as erratic scheduling. “We would like to see people look at the pathway to use and addiction and overdose, and try to affect it more upstream,” she said.

Comeau said Commodore has a safety program working to reduce injuries, with a 2019 goal of fewer than half the industry standard. “We want everyone to leave the project site the same way they came in,” he said.

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Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer