An average of three construction workers are killed due to job-related incidents each day. But there’s an even more deadly threat to this workforce, and it is self-inflicted; an estimated 10 to 12 construction workers kill themselves every 24 hours. According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, people employed in construction and extraction work have the highest suicide rate among all occupations. The suicide risk is high for people at all levels of the industry, from laborers to company leaders.
There are many reasons the suicide rate is high. First, people drawn to the construction tend to be tough, strong, and accustomed to solving problems on their own. “The same elements that make the people in this industry amazing is also what puts them at increased risk,” said Michelle Walker, Vice President of Operations at SSC Underground, and a member of the board of the Construction Industrial Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). They don’t usually talk to co-workers or mental health professionals when they’re facing difficult personal problems. In addition, those who work at remote jobsites do not have family and friends nearby to support them.
Construction is a stressful job, and both managers and crew members feel the pressure to maintain project schedules despite problems like weather and supply chain issues. During the pandemic, workers had to continue to show up on the jobsite every day, despite worries about catching COVID-19 and/or concern for children struggling at home with online schoolwork.
The construction industry’s demographics are another big factor. Although adults over 85 currently have the highest rate of suicide, people between 25 and 54—a typical range for construction worker—have historically been at the highest risk. In addition, men, who comprise 90% of the construction workforce, are almost four times more likely than women to take their own lives. Construction companies also employ many veterans, who are at a much higher risk of suicide than other people.
Construction is hard work and can take a toll on workers’ bodies. Some people may get hooked on opioids or use alcohol to try to lessen the pain from a traumatic injury or overworked muscles. Both of those coping mechanisms increase suicide risks.
Even young workers just out of high school or college may be at a greater risk for suicide because of the isolation they experienced during the pandemic, said Greg Sizemore, Vice President of Health, Safety, Environment and Workforce Development at the Associated Builders and Contractors. “Their social parameters with regard to suicide and mental health are significantly different, and experts are saying that we may not see this effect of the pandemic lockdown until three years from now.”
Suicide impacts many families, but most people are still reluctant to talk about it. The construction industry is making a concerted effort to reduce suicide risk by breaking through this barrier. The Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) took the lead in these efforts.
In 2015, CFMA published an article, “Mental Illness & Suicide: Break the Silence & Create a Caring Culture,” in its Building Profits magazine. Co-written by longtime CFMA member Cal Beyer and mental health/suicide prevention expert Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, the article raised awareness and resulted in a CFMA-sponsored suicide prevention summit in the spring of 2016.
“It was the first time that this got talked about on a large scale within the industry, and it really caught fire within our organization,” said Walker. Their efforts attracted more notice when the CDC released its report on industry suicide rates later that year. CFMA eventually established the CIASP, which became a separate, standalone, 501(c)(3) organization in 2018. NASBP was one of the first organizations to join the effort and became an active, caring supporter and stakeholder when CIASP formed.
CIASP’s mission is to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and suicide prevention and to provide resources and tools to create a zero-suicide industry by uniting and supporting the construction community.
CIASP encourages contractors to STAND up for suicide prevention by creating safe cultures, providing training to identify and help those at risk, raising awareness about the suicide crisis in construction, normalizing conversations around suicide and mental health, and ultimately decreasing the risks associated with suicide in construction. Pictured is a badge NASBP created and distributed to NASBP members to wear, indicating how NASBP members support CIASP efforts.
“We are focused on getting information and resources to the contractors, who then get it to their workforce in a way that’s appropriate to them. Every company culture is different, and how you approach this topic depends a lot on how your company is set up and what things you already have in place,” said Walker.
On its website (https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/) CIASP offers a variety of mental-health and suicide prevention tools and resources ranging from toolbox talks and training programs to articles setting up mental health intervention and assistance programs.
Walker has seen the value of such programs first hand. An employee at SSC Underground began exhibiting some of the classic warning signs of suicide risk: performance problems, absenteeism, and getting into confrontations with other crew members. Instead of firing the employee, which would have been justifiable, the ownership took a different approach.
Walker met with the employee, pointed out the performance issues that were occurring, and asked if there was something going on to cause them. He unloaded a list of personal/family/relationship issues that he was dealing with, admittedly in an unhealthy way. While all agreed that the way he was performing could not continue, leadership expressed support and offered a plan for help, asked him if he was having suicidal thoughts, and helped him make a plan for staying safe while he got help. “We gave him a leave of absence so he could stay on insurance and maintain benefits and access therapy,” Walker said. She helped the employee find an in-network therapist, and he had to offer proof that he was attending twice-a-week therapy sessions. This approach was so successful that the employee asked to have a “graduation ceremony” at the end of his leave to show his bosses that he had dealt with his family issues.
“It was transformational. We would have been 100% justified in saying, here’s your stuff, you’re gone; but instead, this employee was able to turn his life around, positively impact his family, and continue on as a good employee,” she said.
Help on the Jobsite
Front-line supervisors are usually in the best position to identify workers who are having problems and might be suicidal because they see those workers on a daily basis. But many who have been promoted from craft positions lack the skills and training to recognize the signs of employees having a mental health crisis. “We have to equip these people so that they can be successful in watching over the care, custody, or control of their people,” said Sizemore.
He said many contractors today are developing mental health programs and/or starting peer-to-peer groups for workers on jobsites. What may start out as a debrief of the day may lead to members of these groups becoming more comfortable discussing problems that they may be having over time.
“More and more of our contractors are integrating chaplaincy into their work,” Sizemore added. In this context, chaplaincy isn’t a ministry related to a particular religion. “It’s about being mindful and intentional and connecting with your employees on a regular basis, often with a neutral party that they know they can trust in confidence.”
Corporate chaplains go out on the jobsite and get to know the workers. “Through those check-ins, the chaplain might observe some kind of behavior, like distraction or lack of judgment, that could be indicative of a problem that’s going to affect them on the job,” he continued. Workers who don’t want to talk with their foreman or site supervisor about a problem may be willing to open up to someone they have come to know and trust.
Both large and small contractors face difficulties in setting up these kinds of programs, however. Bigger companies may have the necessary financial resources but do not have a good way of connecting with all their employees working at jobsites around the country. Smaller companies may not be able to cover the costs of such programs and lack the manpower necessary to follow through with them.
In an effort to ensure that both contractors and their employees have access to the resources they need when they are having problems, ABC will be rolling out a new key component to its STEP Safety Management Program, the Total Human Health Initiative (THHI). One of its goals is to have an individual designated as the mental health champion in every one of ABC’s 68 chapters by the end of the first quarter of 2023.
“This is an individual who has been trained to deliver awareness and education around suicide prevention, as well as mental health,” said Sizemore. The mental health champion will serve as the primary point of contact for ABC members who need assistance with employees’ mental health issues. ABC has signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), https://afsp.org/, and with this organization’s assistance, the mental health champions will be able to connect contractors and their employees with the appropriate resources, including counselors, in their geographic area.
The surety industry has been doing its part to get the mental health/suicide prevention message out to the construction community. Since NASBP joined the CFMA’s effort in 2016, NASBP has been communicating about the issue and CIASP efforts regularly in its communications. NASBP invited CMFA’s Director of Communications and Editor of CFMA Building Profits, Kristy Dombroski, who serves on the Board of CIASP, to provide a presentation on recent efforts undertaken by CIASP at the 2022 NASBP Fall Meetings in Boston and San Antonio. More and more NASBP members are regularly discussing these issues with their clients.
Zach Mendelson, Principal at EPIC Bonds/Insurance/Construction, said his company has been integrating suicide awareness into many of shop talks they provide for their clients’ workers. While the CIASP resources and programs have been helpful in these efforts, Mendelson stated, “I think what we’ve found is that sometimes it’s just easier to have someone stand up there and talk from the heart about relatable situations.”
Other construction industry associations have taken a similar approach. Each year, the San Francisco chapter of the CFMA invites area contractors to a meeting that focuses on suicide prevention. “We usually have the people from the suicide prevention hotline come in. They’re more trained in this than we are, and they have some really relevant stories, which are sometimes what teaches people the best,” said Chapter President Michael Grant of Cahill Contractors.
Preventing suicides requires a constant and ongoing awareness of the problem and the sharing of information, said Mark Munekawa, Senior Vice President, Surety at Woodruff Sawyer. “As we talk to our clients in the construction industry, and even our own staff, there are ways in which we can get educated so that we’re more aware.” While there is no easy or fast fix, reducing the number of construction workers who commit suicide is possible if everyone in the industry is willing to work towards that goal. NASBP regularly publishes about CIASP efforts in its communications.
How to Recognize a Worker at Risk for Suicide
According to CIASP, the warning signs of suicide include:
• Decreased productivity
• Increased conflict among co-workers
• Near hits, incidents, and injuries
• Decreased problem-solving ability
• Increased tardiness and absenteeism
Find Out More
NASBP is a caring supporter and stakeholder of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Access NASBP Blog posts on this topic here: http://bit.ly/3GZhPtN; http://bit.ly/3GDFyzi. Access a flyer NASBP created about CIASP’s efforts: https://bit.ly/3iAR86e.