Suicide and mental health issues are serious subjects in the construction industry. As much as 25% of the U.S. population experiences mental health issues and as many as two thirds of those individuals (16%) don’t seek treatment. Employers and coworkers may be able to provide support to workers experiencing mental health issues if they understand how to recognize warning signs, and how they can provide assistance or help a coworker/friend get help.
Many within the construction industry don’t realize that when workers face problems involving mental health, they can increase their company’s risk of accidents and losses. Management and safety professionals also need to know that mental health issues lead to worker absenteeism, presenteeism, and lost productivity – all of which affect the economic strength of the company.
According to the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA), from 1999 to 2014 there was a 22% increase in suicide among white middle-aged men with less than a college education; opioid and alcohol abuse were among the causes of this increased rate. In addition, CFMA reported more construction workers commit suicide than in any other industry. In fact, more construction workers die each year from suicide than on-the-job accidents.
Although most construction related suicides do not happen on construction sites, I’m sure do occur. When a fellow worker commits suicide on or off the job, many people within the company are affected. Historically, the construction industry has spent a lot of time and money to provide workers with a safe place to work, including efforts to protect workers from exposure to chemicals and other health hazards such as asbestos and silica dust. However, we often overlook or don’t recognize the psychological aspects of working in construction.
Many job factors can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health: job security, odd hours, low pay, job stress, bullying, or separation from family and friends when jobs are not local. Additionally, events outside of work, such as divorce, family illness, death of a loved one, or PTSD, can take a significant mental and emotional toll. One or more of these issues can be overwhelming, leaving a person feeling like they have no place to turn.
Recognizing Warning Signs
CFMA has identified these common warning signs as indicators of possible mental health problems:
- appearing sad or depressed most of the time;
- increased tardiness and absenteeism;
- talking about feeling trapped or wanting to die;
- decreased productivity;
- increased conflict among co-workers;
- extreme mood swings;
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs;
- decreased self-confidence;
- feeling hopeless and helpless;
- sleeping too much or too little;
- acting anxious, agitated, or reckless;
- near hits, incidents, and injuries;
- withdrawing from family and friends;
- talking about being a burden to others,
- decreased problem-solving ability.
Preventing Construction Worker Suicide
- Educate management and employees about mental health problems and what they can do if they feel depressed or suicidal, or recognize that a coworker/friend may need help.
- Establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and make sure all understand that contacting the EAP is confidential.
- Make information about additional resources and support groups available to all employees, such as the Veterans Administration Suicide Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- Work to destigmatize mental health issues in your company’s culture.
- Create a post-suicide crisis response plan to help employees deal with the death of a coworker.
Along with many construction associations, NUCA is a member of CFMA’s Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). Visit the CIASP website for more information. The OSHA website (www.osha.gov/preventingsuicide) also has links to suicide prevention resources.
George Kennedy is Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).