Over the past 25 years, a focus on improved safety practices and attention to training and prevention have reduced the rate of construction workplace fatalities by one third from 15/100,000 in 2014 to 9.5/100,000 in 2017. These statistics show that a cultural shift in attitude toward safety guided by leadership support and investment can turn the tide on preventable deaths. It is this same mindset that is necessary to move the needle on an even greater danger to construction workers – suicide. According to a CDC Report released in 2018, more construction workers die by suicide each year than any other industry – at a rate of 53.2/100,000. This rate is not only over 5x greater than the workplace fatality rate, but 4x greater than the suicide rate of the general population.
As an industry who has a large part of its workforce made up of white, middle age males without a college education (the demographic population most at risk of suicide) and combined with a large number of veterans (whose suicide rate is 1.5 times greater than the non-veteran population) we are at increased risk for suicide before you even begin to consider the industry specific factors. When you add in the elements of a “tough guy” mentality where talking about feelings or struggles may be looked down upon; a transient workforce where peer relationships may not be encouraged; erratic work hours and location – requiring travel and time away from families and physical pain resulting from work related injuries or wear and tear (and resulting drug use/self medicating) it might not be as surprising as first thought why construction is so at risk for suicide.
You may be reading this and thinking “not me – we don’t have a suicide problem at our company.” I would challenge you to consider do you have a problem with deaths caused by falls, struck by incidents, or electrocutions? I would hope not. And yet, you more than likely invest in fall protection, back up alarms, spotter training, and assured grounding programs and training – to prevent fatalities by these causes. So, if you are among the fortunate who have not experienced an employee suicide, I urge you to begin investing in suicide prevention in your company. Not only do you have the potential to save lives, but by making mental health a priority you can improve productivity and reduce the likelihood of accidents, disability claims and absenteeism.
An employer’s role in suicide prevention is simple: create a caring culture where employees feel safe to ask for help for themselves or their co-workers. Steps to integrating suicide prevention into the workplace can be looked at from an upstream, midstream and downstream model – building awareness upstream, creating safeguards midstream, and managing crisis downstream. Fundamental to any program is vocal leadership support and an expectation of acceptance by all members of the team.
Upstream activities center around education and awareness – building mental health literacy and eliminating the stigma around suicide, making conversations possible. Upstream steps may include hanging up posters; distributing wallet cards, hard hat stickers, or keytags; including informational articles in company newsletters and discussing at company meetings. Also be sure to build into existing safety practices such as daily hazard analysis meetings and toolbox talks.
The goal of midstream activities is to build protective factors. Midstream action steps include suicide prevention training, a referral process for at risk employees, information on accessing the company’s EAP and/or behavioral health benefits. Employees need to be trained on how to recognize warning signs and what to do if they suspect a co-worker is at risk of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and Crisis Text Line (741741) can be broadly promoted to all employees for easy reference whenever needed.
Downstream activities center around crisis response. This may involve emergency intervention for an employee who is in a suicidal crisis to get the immediate help, but also involves the proper handling of an employee’s suicide attempt or death. Postvention activities following a suicide are crucial to address the emotions of survivors and prevent suicide contagion. EAPs can assist with this, as can “on call” providers such as R3 Continuum. Following a suicide attempt, reintegration into the workplace needs to be handled with sensitivity and respect for the returning employee. Finally, crisis response to any workplace trauma such as a jobsite accident/fatality or other such upsetting event is critical to help minimize the emotional trauma to affected employees.
The benefit to the construction industry in tackling this issue is that our culture is already focused on safety and many of these activities can be integrated in to existing safety practices and don’t need to be standalone activities. Toolbox talks and safety meetings are great places to build awareness and share information. Suicide prevention training can be included in safety training. Accident response/investigation practices can be expanded to include postvention. Hardhat stickers are a great way to draw attention to the topic of suicide prevention, and jobsite posters provide a convenient reminder of warning signs and resources.
The time to act on this is now, as suicide is an issue that continues to grow. By visiting www.preventconstructionsuicide.com, employers can find additional information and articles to gain a deeper understanding, in addition to resources to help with implementation including a Needs Analysis/Integration Checklist, posters, templates and more. Don’t wait to protect your employees!
Michelle Walker, CCIFP, SPHR, is the Vice President of Finance and Administration at SSC Underground, based in Phoenix, AZ. She is part of the Construction Financial Management Association’s suicide prevention efforts since 2016, is chair of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and serves on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Workplace Committee.