Many construction companies regularly promote safety on their worksites. Less attention may be paid to the fact that the average employee at work on a high rise is in more danger from suicide than from accidental workplace death, according to statistics compiled from the U.S. Census and the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, more construction workers die by suicide than by all other workplace-related fatalities added together. The CDC reports the suicide rate for construction workers as 49.4 per 100,000, almost four times the national average and five times all other construction fatalities combined.
Education and training are the tools the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) uses to combat suicide among construction employees, who are at higher risk for suicide than members of any other industry. The Alliance involves all levels of the industry. Construction contractors serve as direct conduits to employees; unions interact with employee and contractors, while industry service providers—including surety bonding agents through the NASBP—work with their customers.
Michelle Walker, Vice President of Finance and Administration for Phoenix-based construction contractor SSC Underground, said opening up the culture of construction workers to talking about mental health problems is the first step to combatting suicide. “Just because people aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Walker said.
Walker said the construction industry’s culture of invincibility makes it vulnerable to mental health threats. She cited construction industry demographics, job pressures, physical wear and tear, and chronic pain that can lead to opioid abuse as risk factors for suicide. Experts are worried that the sharp economic downturn and isolation in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic could put people at even greater risk for suicide.
Walker said that in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Alliance, through May 29, offers at no cost a 60- to 90-minute LivingWorks Start online suicide prevention training. Register here for the training. “As a current topic we are highly concerned about the added stress from COVID 19—we want to make sure this is an element they (industry stakeholders) are addressing as part of the epidemic,” Walker said.
Benefits of LivingWorks Start training listed on the training website include:
- Easy, effective online learning in as little as one hour;
- Empowering employees to look out for each other;
- Protecting morale and costs by reducing the risk of suicide.
Walker said a change of attitude begins with the boss. “Leadership must stand up, and say we will not tolerate any type of stigmatizing or blame or harassment based on mental health or depression. You can stand up (and ask for help) without fear of losing your job.”
Project owners stand in a key position because they can sponsor suicide prevention education for all who participate in a given project. Lendlease, a multinational developer with its Americas business headquartered in New York, is in the process of doing just that.
“When looking at that staggering statistic we thought about how to raise awareness and reduce stigma (regarding mental health problems) across our operations,” said Eleni Reed, Head of Sustainability for Lendlease Americas, which is headquartered in New York City. She said Lendlease “extends the definition of safety to include mental health.
Lendlease in partnership with Living Works developed an in-person 60 minute training targeted at tradespeople. “[The education sessions are] offered on a voluntary basis during this pilot phase. We are thinking about—as we bring the contractors into projects—how this type of training could be rolled into other things that happen in terms of onboarding in the future,” said Reed.
“What we found at LendLease is it really starts with breaking the myths and opening up the conversations and reducing the stigma,” Reed said. “The ability to talk about this issue openly helps to diminish the fears.’’
Lendlease’s goal was to extend suicide prevention education from its own employees to construction workers and tradespeople on job sites. After piloting in-person educational sessions in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the developer was preparing to roll out the one-hour training at job sites nationwide. Like the industry as a whole, Lendlease’s suicide prevention initiative has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic as in-person training is not feasible given social distancing requirements.
As a stopgap through May 29, the web-based free training is available. There, trainees learn to recognize signs and symptoms and how to interact with those who may be at risk.
Walker said her involvement in suicide prevention began in her role as head of a chapter of the Construction Financial Management Association. Cal Beyer, a risk and insurance professional known as the godfather of construction industry suicide prevention, came to the CFMA to ask for help promoting the cause.
“He said ‘let’s do something,’” Walker said. “‘As people who are responsible for protecting assets of a company, people are our most important asset.’’’
Walker explained why Beyer’s appeal resonated with her. “My dad’s best friend died by suicide. I grew up in an oil-town, and the most-macho possible environment. People knew it, but nobody would say it. (They would say) ‘He died in a shooting accident.’ I watched my dad deal with that and not be able to grieve,” Walker said.
Walker stresses that construction industry members should visit the website where they can both learn about the problem but also commit to a solution. “We want people to sign on and take the pledge to STAND up for suicide prevention. Make that tangible commitment, which will also get you included on our mailing list. We want people to engage in that way,” she said.
Have you taken the pledge yet? No matter what your role in the industry—we have a pledge for you! Contractors, unions, associations, service providers like CPA’s, insurance companies, bond producers and sureties, partners in the mental health & suicide prevention space and also project owners. We all have a role to play in addressing mental health and suicide prevention in the construction industry. If you have pledged—please let others know—and encourage them to do the same.
The National Association of Surety Bond Producers is a caring supporter and stakeholder in the CIASP.
NASBP has a check list for NASBP members who want to start a discussion with their construction clients about the construction company’s approach to suicide prevention. See this two-page resource available to NASBP members here: NASBPsuicide_prevention_flyer.pdf