It’s OK to Ask For Help: Addiction Stories from the Construction Industry

NOTE: The following article was featured in the recent National Safety Council’s Family Safety & Health. It was written in the Fall of 2020 collaboratively between Jon O’Brien, Executive Director of the KCA, and Howard Bernstein, President of Penn Installations.

In October of 2016, Jon O’Brien started at the Keystone Contractors Association, which is based in Harrisburg, PA and has member companies spread around the state. After this relocation, the first thing he did was to schedule a tour of the state, visiting current members to learn more about them – their history, strengths, weaknesses, challenges, etc. The same issue kept popping up in conversations: opioid abuse is hurting the industry and communities.

After reporting the results of the statewide tour to the KCA Board, KCA leadership knew they had to do something. Mr. O’Brien did some research to see if concentrated efforts were underway in construction to tackle this opioid epidemic. Sure, there were ads to warn against opioid abuse from the government and healthcare systems, but he did not find channels that spoke directly to construction workers. Since he did not have much luck, in the summer of 2017 the KCA worked with industry allies in state to create the Construction Opioids Awareness Week.

This recognition week is the last full week of July and for it we arm construction employers with lots of resources to discuss pain medication use/abuse with their employees. It’s hard to gauge the success of a movement like this, but one indicator that the KCA believes is crucial for success is if we get the construction industry talking about the issue. Conversation is key to building a construction industry in Pennsylvania where people feel comfortable enough to seek help, with that in mind here are some perspectives from labor and management:  

Labor: Meeting-Makers Make It, Mark’s Story

Mark St Cyr’s story: His sobriety date was December 28, 2007. But his story began way before then and it’s all part of the plan per Mark: “God puts the toughest people through the toughest situations to help others.” As a young boy, he was molested by his uncle after his uncle returned from the Vietnam War; in high school Mark smoked weed and drank alcohol too; as a young man he became addicted to opioids; in 1986 he had a fire in his home that severely burned his wife and over 30% of his one daughter’s body.  Mark’s a tough person, but that’s only half of it – helping others is the other half.

On that December day back in 2007, Mark’s world changed and because of his life’s experiences up until that date, he is now able to change the lives of others too. “Because I drank alcohol so much at a young age, I was emotionally immature, and I was unable to talk and connect with others. Being sober changed all that and at meetings I’m able to tell my story. By sharing, others are able to relate as they have been through similar situations.” Some examples: Diane had a burnt child and listening to Mark was inspirational; Sean and Jesse shared similar experiences as Mark growing up and Mark’s story is able to help them. Jesse has relapsed twice over the past 12 years but has been clean for the past two years with the help of the sharing sessions. As Mark says: “Meeting makers, make it!”

Over the past few years, Mark and his team of supporters started a non-profit organization in Washington County, PA called Club Serenity, Inc. This organization currently operates a recovery home for women and a second home for men is coming soon. “We’re able to remove people from their environment and place them in a home with like-minded people. It’s working,” said Mark.  

Management: ‘We’re There to Assist’: Howard Bernstein Shares What He’s Learned

Having grown up working summers in construction, Howard Bernstein saw his share of drug and alcohol issues as a young man but now as a husband, father and employer, he looks through a far different lens and he feels powerless over the growing problems we face with addiction. In trying to assist people in both the field and office, he has learned the cliché often about not being able to help addicts until they seek help themselves. Although self-awareness or interventions may occasionally lead someone towards recovery, it is sadly more often that legal troubles, divorce and/or job loss lead to the “Rock bottom” needed to seek help.

What he has learned is that “Getting help” can mean many things, from counseling, to outpatient rehab, to intensive inpatient rehab. Out of pocket expense, income lost, and embarrassment have all been barriers to taking these steps and there can be a wide difference in the experience and success rate of various professional programs. Even the best programs have success rates that can seem defeating, but relapse need not be seen as a failure and is more often than naught part of most people’s recovery. There is no one size fits all but just as with our carpenters, the more tools that one has in their tool bag, the better prepared they can be to meet each day’s challenges. Additional tools for recovery include the support of friends, family and co-workers (many of whom may have been hurt by the addict and may be wary of helping), support groups, an experienced sponsor, recurring counseling and finding positive outlets for the time that was spent previously using. Vivitrol is an injectable form of Naltrexone which lasts for a month and has been a game changer for many addicts and alcoholics who say that it reduces their cravings and can be one more tool.

Hopefully, employers can create an environment where those needing help know that we are there to assist them as the cost of not doing so could never be measured in dollars alone.

Helpful Resources:

Construction Opioids Awareness Week: https://keystonecontractors.com/Opioid-Awareness/

Club Serenity Inc.: https://www.clubserenityinc.com/

Author: buildingpa

I am the proud father of three amazing daughters and I'm married to an awesome lady. When I'm not hanging with the family, I'm the executive director for the Keystone Contractors Association.

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