Mental health on the minds of union sheet metal workers
For decades, when a member of the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART, (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) had a personal problem, they would turn to a fellow member for help. For small issues, friends and mentors dispensed good advice just fine. However, for those members with deeper problems such as thoughts of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse and substance use disorder, friends and mentors were lost as to what advice to give.
The Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) is working with SMART’s Member Assistance Program (MAP), formally the Union Member Assistance Coordinator (UMAC) program, to train members to guide their peers in the direction of professional assistance such as therapy, rehabilitation and eventual recovery. Volunteers in local unions undergo four-day training sessions to learn how to speak to those in distress, where to find services and how to navigate health benefits.
Training sessions began in 2013, and they have been a consistently offered every year since 2014. In 2015 and 2016, in six training sessions, 250 members were trained as MAP volunteers. Remaining training sessions for 2016 are Oct. 3-6 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Nov. 7-10 in San Diego.
“Before, there was an informal way of taking care of each other,” said Chris Carlough, education director for SMART. “The country is riddled with drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a huge problem, and our union is taking the lead in addressing this vital issue that has become a national epidemic.”
“The MAP program takes trusted members in their locals – people members already turn to – and gives them the tools they need to actually help their brothers and sisters,” added Randy Krocka, SMOHIT administrator. “It enables them to save lives, save jobs and save families.”
The recession took its toll at Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 85 in Atlanta, where there were more issues to tackle than drug and alcohol abuse. For Randy Beall, business representative for the local, the training gave him the answers to questions members have been asking him for years.
“I’ve seen a need. I’ve seen many people fail a drug test. I’ve seen many people have troubles. I’ve seen many people lose a job,” said Beall, one of two MAP volunteers at the local. “But it’s more than seeing a need. It’s more than drug problems. Most of the time, the issues we’ve dealt with in the last four years have been along the lines of depression and loss of work, which leads to marital issues as well.”
It’s not easy to get sheet metal workers to open up, Beall said. Building a trusted network inside the local has helped Beall seek out members in crisis instead of waiting for them to knock on his door. Knowing what not to say is just as important as what to say, he added. Training also provided him avenues to seek out community services and benefits to help members.
“We’re not sharers,” Beall said. “But at any given time anyone can go through a bout of depression. Many people battle their way out of it. It’s the person who can’t dig out of it. That’s who we’re looking for.”
Bill Salvatore, a part-time MAP coordinator at Local No. 28, which serves Metropolitan New York and Long Island, came out of retirement to take the position. During his career, he left the union for five years to become a peer counselor at Beth Israel Medical Center, after battling his own addictions.
“This is something that has been a long time coming. It’s been needed for awhile,” Salvatore said. “I absolutely feel like this program can save lives and enhance the quality of life for members who don’t know what to do.”
Salvatore’s office was renovated at Local No. 28 to allow for a private entrance to encourage more members to come forward with any problem on their minds.
“I never know what’s going to be on the other end of the phone when someone calls me,” Salvatore said. “It’s very rewarding work. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of a program like this. And I was enjoying my retirement. I recommended it to everyone. To come back to work and do this was a privilege.”
Although the program has been active for two years, it’s a slow process – training members and advertising it to those who need help takes time. In Atlanta last year, Beall said the MAP program helped an average of 10 people. In this case, he added, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you keep one person from turning to a bottle or one person from dying by suicide, that’s a lot,” Beall said.
It’s all a part of SMOHIT and SMART’s master plan to expand the program across all locals, Carlough said. In 2017, trainings will move to locals requesting it, giving them more volunteers to help more members.
“We’re building the awareness of the issue, and then we’re going to go deep into the unions and train as many people as we can to build that network of support,” he added. “It is one of our most popular programs right now. There’s a strong need for it. It’s a big problem going on in our members’ families’ lives right now. That’s what we really like to focus on – it’s all about the health and well-being of our union family.
The Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) was founded in 1986 to address the impact of decades-long asbestos exposure on those working in the sheet metal industry. To date, more than 55,000 sheet metal workers have been screened as part of its ongoing Asbestos Screening Program.
SMOHIT has since expanded its mission to operate on four separate but related tracks: monitoring and documenting the health of sheet metal workers as it relates to workplace exposures and hazards; providing safety information and training related to best safety practices on and off the job; acting as an aggressive advocate for the health and safety of its members with government and through likeminded allied organizations; and providing diet and exercise information to address the health and wellness of its members.
SMOHIT has adjusted its methods and messages to reflect feedback from local unions and the industry, and to address new safety challenges as they arise. The organization works directly with the International Training Institute (ITI) to provide training programs for the unionized sheet metal industry.
For more information on SMOHIT, visit smohit.org or call 703-739-7130.