Slips, trips and falls from heights often top the list when safety issues on construction jobsites are discussed – and rightly so – but the mental health of workers is another less visible threat that’s just as important.
Alarmingly, work-related stress, depression and anxiety are the most reported workplace health issues in construction.
Meanwhile, suicide among those who work in the industry has reached epidemic proportions.
The construction industry has the second highest rate of suicide in the U.S. at 53.3 per 100,000 workers, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, with the first being mining and oil and gas extraction. Breaking the numbers down further by occupation and gender, for construction and extraction the rate was 49.4 per cent for males and 25.5 per cent for females.
The suicide rate in the U.S. is over four times higher than the national suicide average and five times higher than all construction deaths combined. Males that work in construction have a 65 per cent higher rate of suicide than all U.S. male workers. Statistics are difficult to come by for Canada but there’s no reason to think they are different.
In the U.S., the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) have decided to take action. They have teamed up to tackle the problem, announcing a collaborative partnership to address mental health and suicide prevention throughout the industry.
“Construction work is noble, and every person in the industry matters and is worthy of resources and investment,” says Greg Sizemore, vice-president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at ABC. “Every suicide is preventable, and we have the ability to reduce suicide in our industry.
“Safety is not just about recordable incidents, but includes total human health – emotional, social, mental, intellectual, ﬁnancial, occupational and spiritual wellness.”
ABC is partnering with the AFSP because the latter organization is a leader in the space and already has many resources and processes in place to raise awareness, conduct intervention and offer assistance.
“This partnership is an incredible opportunity to leverage and advance world-class safety and total human health for our people,” explains Sizemore.
Through the partnership, ABC will provide construction workers and employers with educational resources on mental health and suicide prevention, including the Suicide Prevention Lifeline call centre, the Crisis Text Line, toolbox talks and speakers who can provide in-person, recorded and online education on suicide awareness and prevention. ABC will also participate in key events where the issue is addressed.
Sizemore says ABC is passionate about tackling the problem because suicide crosses all social economic sectors.
“If we can collectively be a conduit to employers and employees that is a win-win. It is all about equipping and empowering our industry with the resources and tools you need to be successful. AFSP’s expertise in the suicide prevention space helps ABC members and their workers build America safely with a focus on total human health.”
ABC has already begun transferring research about suicide prevention to the industry. For example, some companies are holding all-staff meetings, others are incorporating the research into jobsite toolbox talks and many have a team dedicated to raising awareness through internal education.
“But there is much more work to be done,” says Sizemore. “We all recognize the impact on our current and future workforce needs, so I believe there is an urgency to do the work and get the information out that could potentially save someone’s life or the life of a loved one.”
According to Dr. Marcos Iglesias, chief medical director for Travelers, the suicide statistics for construction are “stunning” but many of the risk factors are modifiable, so the industry must strive to better understand the factors that may lead individuals to take their life and create an atmosphere where workers feel free to seek and get help.
“Some in the construction industry have noted that construction workers potentially have a perfect storm of suicide risk factors,” he notes. “These include a male-dominated workforce, with a large percentage of veterans, and a significant number of workers with untreated psychiatric and substance use conditions.”
Many individuals in the industry are also stoic and self-reliant, characteristics that may lead them to not seek mental health help, says Iglesias.
“Today it is more important than ever to be aware of the problem and face it head-on, including having open, frank conversations which can destigmatize mental health conditions and create a supportive environment with available resources to help.”
Mike Haller, CEO of Walbridge, says the construction industry has always been a “suck it up, be tough, you can do it” industry, but it must become more of an empathetic, listening, understanding environment.
“We must be the ones who listen. We can’t solve another individual’s problems. But if we have the awareness that we notice it in our day-to-day dealings, you can maybe say, ‘You know, maybe you need to talk to somebody about this issue. Maybe you need to seek some professional counselling on this issue.’”
A study by Workwear Guru found that a high-pressure work environment, work at remote locations, tough guy mentality, and opioid dependency are the main factors putting construction workers at risk for suicide.
“When you add together the pressure from the management and the workplace complications, you find construction workers jeopardizing their health and working longer hours to conform to deadlines, budget, and quality expectations,” the study states. “Work-related stress is not an isolated event. Instead, it builds over time, placing the construction workers at risk of mental health problems that lead to suicide.”