The national effort to combat the plague of suicides in the U.S. construction sector is less than three years old, reckons Alberici safety director Bo Cooper, and he pinpoints two Missouri milestones that launched the effort.
The first was a single suicide death of a construction worker who jumped from the 23rd floor of a tower under construction in Kansas City; and then the second was a barrier-breaking event in St. Louis several months later in September 2019 that saw 600 construction workers fall into stunned silence.
The news of the Kansas City tragedy reached Cooper’s desk and he says it went into a file with other information he had gathered about suicide in the construction industry. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and it’s getting worse, with nearly 45,000 suicides in 2016, according to the Associated General Contractors of America of Missouri (AGCMO). Males, dominant in the construction sector, account for almost four of five suicide deaths, giving construction the second highest rate of suicides among all occupations, four times higher than in the general population.
“The gentleman in Kansas City jumped to his death off a project, and I immediately thought, I’ve got to do something,” Cooper recalled thinking. “How do we erase the stigma and open this topic up to people.”
Alberici’s employee assistance program already had suicide prevention on its radar.
“We just realized that if our own employees were having problems, think of how many people out there in our industry are struggling with perhaps suicidal ideation and we don’t even know it and they’re on our projects,” Cooper recalled.
“What can I do to help them? We don’t want them suffering on our projects.”
Cooper consulted with other St. Louis-area advocates including John Gaal of the Carpenters Regional Council, Washington University associate professor Dr. Ann Marie Dale and representatives of the AGCMO and they began to develop plans.
A whole program was developed including stickers, messaging and toolbox talks but that rally in September 2019 gave the program the push it needed. Cooper and Gaal were scheduled among the speakers. It was the largest suicide prevention event of its type ever, as far as Cooper is aware, with many Alberici workers and subtrades from other large firms in attendance at the hospital jobsite asked to stand-down from their tools.
“It was really tough to do because I didn’t know how it was going to be received,” he said. “John Gaal spoke, and then I spoke, and we were both pretty blown away. Everyone was very quiet — when you’re talking to a group of construction workers, you will only have about 20 minutes to talk to them. I think we were right at about the 20-minute mark and you could hear a pin drop and everybody was focused and looking.
“As soon as we broke up, we were passing out the materials, several people came up and said, ‘Man, it’s great to hear y’all doing this. It’s about time y’all started looking at who we are as whole people. There’s people working in complete pain and in crisis every day and it’s about time you employers got on board.’
“It was an overwhelmingly positive, well-received message that I never expected to have.”
Two years later, Cooper said, the month of September in the States is generally known as suicide awareness and prevention month, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has jumped on board along with contractors and other stakeholders across the country.
“If they want to use the elements that we use at St. Louis to start it, that’s great,” said Cooper of the national effort. “But the message needs to be thoughtfully put together. That’s what we did with Washington University and John Gaal, with very knowledgeable people helping shape the message way better than I could.”
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