Only two years into recovery after battling more than a decade of drug addiction, Thomas S. Gunning, executive director of the Boston-based Building Trades Employers Association Northeast, learned about the skyrocketing number of opioid overdoses in the construction industry and desperately wanted to help. A 2018 Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health study revealed that about 22% of some 2,000 deaths in the state two years earlier from an opioid-related overdose, up from 1,700 in 2015, were construction workers. Gunning, 37, wanted to use his knowledge of substance use disorder to help others and unite the construction industry in the fight against the opioid epidemic. “But I still had the tough guy mentality figuring nobody’s going to want to hear this,” he says.
Gunning survived two heroin overdoses in March 2016 after getting hooked on opioids prescribed after surgery for a torn labrum discovered when he was being recruited by his college baseball team. He was rescued by the life-saving drug Narcan and spent eight days in intensive care, including having to relearn how to breathe.
Gunning hid his addiction from family and friends for more than a decade until he was fired by his father, Thomas J. Gunning, former executive director of the trade group. He found help and got back on track as a member of Laborers union Local 223 working for contractor Lee Kennedy Co. Inc.
In 2019, Gunning helped organize BTEA Northeast’s first-ever Building Trades Recovery Week in Boston with educational resources for more than 25 unions, contractors and other organizations. “Narcan training was by far the number one attended educational seminar,” says Gunning. “I looked at Narcan as a life-saving device, no different than a defibrillator.”
At the close of the event, dozens of workers participated in a standdown in memory of the 150 construction workers per 100,000 workers who die due to opioids. Contractors including John Moriarty, Turner Construction and Lee Kennedy began placing Narcan on jobsites.
Such use reversed nine overdoses and saved those lives on jobsites in just eight months of 2019. Gunning then joined labor leaders to have BTEA Northeast train labor union business managers and stewards in Narcan administration.
“Gunning has been on the forefront encouraging employers to provide Narcan to worksites … a steep learning curve for many in the construction industry, says John Christian, president and CEO of Quincy, Mass.-based Modern Assistance Programs Inc. He adds that the medication’s introduction to jobsites “has been the entry to getting employers involved in saving lives and letting employees know they care for their wellbeing.”
Cal Beyer, vice president of Workforce Risk and Worker Well Being at Minneapolis-based CSDZ Construction, says “Gunning’s power of lived experience and recovery from substance use disorder is huge. The fact that he is a bridge between labor and management, as an association [executive], allows for neutrality as well.” He adds that Gunning’s leadership “could motivate additional employers to partner with a waiver to take better care of workers.”
Gunning says employee assistance programs are important since employees often don’t want to tell a boss or union about their addiction, fearing retaliation or job loss. In the future, he says he hopes to take BTEA’s addiction and recovery program national “to give people with substance use or mental health disorder hope.”