Medford teenagers are making the kind of choices parents applaud.

“Underage drinking numbers are going down,” said Penelope Funaiole, the city’s prevention and outreach coordinator. “Prescription drug use is going down tremendously.”

Here’s what doesn’t make sense. The number of people in Medford dying from opioid overdoses has climbed steadily. There were 17 fatal overdoses last year, and dozens more in the previous four years.

Funaiole wanted to know why.

She found answers in the city’s death records. Between 2012 and 2015, they revealed that 75 percent of overdoses were among men. Funaiole and her team also noticed another common factor.

“We were like, wait a minute,” said Funaiole, “there’s a lot of people that are working in one particular area.”

More than half of Medford’s opioid overdose victims worked in the trades — an umbrella term for everything from highly skilled people building skyscrapers to day laborers picking up the occasional painting job. Working with the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition, the Medford team discovered a similar trend in five nearby towns. Death records from Malden, Melrose, Stoneham, Wakefield and Reading indicated 42 percent of overdose deaths were among men who worked in the trades.

“Are the ones on the job site necessarily the ones who are overdosing and dying? I don’t know,” said Funaiole. “That may just be their most recent occupation.”

The public health group followed up with dozens of constructions workers who suggested one reason people in their industry may be vulnerable to addiction: a link between getting hurt on the job and then hooked on pain killers.

“They’re given a prescription ... to nullify the pain. And these drugs are very powerful,” said Funaiole. “They can really take over operations in your brain.”

"They're given a prescription ... to nullify the pain.  And these drugs are very powerful.  They can really take over operations in your brain" - Penelope Funaiole, Medford prevention and outreach coordinator 

But Joe Blades, a 33-year-old pipe fitter, said his addiction started long before he ever put on a hard hat.

“I had been using drugs since I was 15, 16 years old,” said Blades.

Growing up in Melrose, Blades hit his teens just as opioid pain killers hit the streets — in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. He says he got into the trades, in part, because he knew he’d make enough money to buy drugs.

But, eventually, he got caught. 

“I failed a drug test,” said Blades. “If I didn’t fail a drug test, I don’t think that I would have gotten the help that I needed.”

His union got him into treatment and he’s been sober for seven years.  

“I’m one of those success stories,” said Blades. “It doesn’t happen for everybody.”

Blades makes a distinction the death records fail to capture. Bigger jobs have built-in safeguards — the kind that caught his addiction. Then there’s smaller ones that offer easy money with little oversight.

“Pay me $200 and then that’s all I need for, you know, whatever I need to do,” said Blades. “It’s not always about, ‘I think he needs help.’”

The Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition hopes to change that mentality. They produced two ads that aired on Boston sports radio stations. Amid a whir of machinery in the background, a male voice says,“You don’t want someone to lose their job, you want them to keep it. Recovery starts with one person helping another.”

The death record data revealed something else about the people who may be most in need of help.  They’re largely men born in the mid to late 1980s, who came of age, like Joe Blades, when opioid pain killers first became available as both prescription and party drugs.