Canadian construction stakeholders are praising the federal government’s pledge to implement 988, a national three-digit suicide hotline replacing a 10-digit crisis phone number, as a life saver for the industry.
The federal budget in March contained a promise to install 988 by Nov. 30, 2023. The government said the shorter number will be easier to remember and dial or text during a time of crisis.
The rate of suicide among construction workers in Canada is three times the national average, 53.2 versus 17.3 per 100,000 workers. Ken Lancastle, chief operating officer with the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada, said the 988 initiative had been on the radar of the MCAC given that it has been championed by its counterparts in the U.S.
“The United States has implemented that and our counterparts in the U.S. have done a lot of work to spread more information about that 988 hotline,” said Lancastle.
“We know the statistics in the construction industry are particularly grim with respect to mental health and suicide, and implementation of that phone number is going to be one of those things that’s going to add support and resources that certainly can help save lives.”
Canadian members of parliament unanimously passed a motion to establish a three-digit national suicide prevention hotline in December 2020. The motion was introduced by Conservative MP Todd Doherty (Cariboo–Prince George, B.C.).
The 988 line has already been introduced in the U.S. and last September, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) announced it had joined forces with three other trade contractor associations on another initiative, a poker-style chip, that would be distributed on construction sites as a way to extend awareness.
Raffi Elchemmas, the MCAA’s executive director for safety, health and risk management, said the four associations — the National Electrical Contractors Association, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, the Association of Union Constructors and the MCAA — compare notes regularly on health and safety issues and at one meeting they were looking at data that spotlighted mental health problems in construction, data that couldn’t be argued with, he said.
“Together the four associations made it our responsibility to act. We knew this was our chance,” he said, with the implementation of the 988 line last year.
The action plan has included the distribution of more than 50,000 988 chips and thousands of 988 hardhat stickers, development of a video on the topic, toolbox talks and other tools.
Over eight months the chips have ended up everywhere, including outside of construction, Elchemmas said. The chips extend the reach of awareness efforts.
“We have received calls thanking us from high schools, families, spouses and plenty of construction workers,” he said. “The opportunity to save even just one life makes this all worth it.”
In 2020 the construction industry in the U.S. launched the inaugural Construction Suicide Prevention Week. The event will be held Sept. 4 to 8 this year.
“Throughout my research and working across construction for over 10 years, the high stress environment of construction plays a role in generating the conditions that lead to suicides in the sector,” Elchemmas said. “People often think about the good pay and stable careers, but neglect to insert the transient work of construction and the impact this has on families, the highs and lows of long hours, and the many hazards that lead to injuries followed by pain management.”
Ontario General Contractors Association president Giovanni Cautillo said the chip program has not yet made its way to his members in Ontario, “but it is an excellent initiative, and this is something that the OGCA would definitely champion on behalf of the ICI construction sector.
“I see the 988 line as another tool in the toolbox for mental wellness and it unquestionably has the potential to saves lives, both on and off the construction site,” he said. “I am a huge proponent for mental wellness and anything that keeps this topic in society’s lexicon is a good thing.”