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Giving Construction Workers With Substance Abuse: Hope & Recovery Opportunities

Thomas S. Gunning wins Top Newsmaker Award for his work on getting Narcan on more construction jobsites in Massachusetts. 

Thomas S. Gunning has been more than just a figure in the construction industry; he has been a beacon of hope for many. As the Executive Director of the Boston-based Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) Northeast, he has a vision to rebuild lives and communities through the power of the building trades.

He learned about the skyrocketing number of opioid overdoses in the construction industry after being in recovery for two years from his own decade of drug addiction, and he wanted to help. In 2018, Gunning learned that 22% of the more than 2,000 deaths from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts were construction workers. And he wanted to use his knowledge of substance use disorder to help others.

Gunning himself had survived two heroin overdoses in March 2016 after becoming addicted to opioids prescribed to him after a labrum repair surgery. The drug, Narcan, saved him, but he still spent eight days in intensive care. He hid his addiction from family and friends for more than a decade. His dad, Thomas J. Gunning, former Executive Director of the trade group, brought attention to the problem by firing his son. Then, the younger Gunning found help and got back on track as a member of Local 223 working for 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 No. 1 attended educational seminar,” Gunning says. “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 began placing Narcan on jobsites, which in 2019 alone reversed nine overdoses and saved those lives on jobsites in just eight months in 2019. 

Gunning then began having BTEA Northeast train labor union business managers and stewards in Narcan administration.
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,” says John Christian, President and CEO of Quincy, Massachusetts-based Modern Assistance Programs Inc. in Engineering News-Record (ENR). 

When ENR announced its annual Top 25 Newsmaker Awards in 2022, it was no surprise that Gunning's name was among those honored. His innovative approach to workforce development and his unwavering dedication to community empowerment had captured the attention of industry leaders and advocates alike.

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.”

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. 

Gunning has continued his Annual Building Trades Recovery Weeks. This year’s event was his fourth and had more than 300 people in attendance, including Sugar Ray Leonard, former professional boxer, and Darren Waller, a tight end for the New York Giants. 

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.”