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Working together to prevent suicide in the construction industry

When an employee at a Milwaukee construction firm took his own life, the trauma struck all parts of the company and was felt keenly for a long time. Whenever suicide takes someone we know, our first thoughts are to the loved ones left behind. But the impact on a workplace can also be very deep, leaving former colleagues wondering if there was any sign we missed, any way we could have helped avert such a terrible occurrence.

Our industry is coming together in Milwaukee to help try and bring the rate of suicide down. This includes a local mental health task force that is working with general contractors in the area to get the message out at their jobsites – and meeting once a month to discuss mental health. The Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association and Associated General Contractors Association safety committees have also been focused on this issue. In addition, there are significant general initiatives, such as Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee (PSGM). Common to all these efforts is recognizing the problem, building awareness, tapping into the right resources, and committing to taking effective action.

The scope of the problem is truly staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate for men working in the construction and extraction industries was 49.4 per 100,000 workers in 2016, making it the highest rate of suicide for any of the industrial classifications tracked by the CDC. And while the suicide rate for women in the construction industry is lower than for men, it appears to be much higher than the suicide rate for the general female population. Overall, the suicide rate in the construction industry is four times the rate of the general population and a bigger source of fatalities than all on-the-job causes. This is a terrible human tragedy – for the individuals who take their own life, for their families and friends, and for their fellow workers in the construction industry. All levels of the construction workforce are at heightened risk of suicide, from laborers to skilled trades to management.

Why is suicide such a problem in the construction industry? Demographics may have a role, as 38 percent of construction workers in 2018 were between the age of 45-64, an age group associated with higher suicide risk. In addition, the culture and nature of the construction industry may play a role. Our industry has not typically encouraged people to talk about personal issues bothering them or to seek help if they need it. Also, the temporary nature of some construction work means many workers do not feel connected to their workplace communities. Lack of consistent work patterns may also mean that access to healthcare and steady pay may be an issue. Another contributing factor may be the higher levels of opioid abuse that has been reported in the construction industry. Individuals experiencing opioid abuse are 75% more likely to attempt suicide.

Whatever the causes, many experts agree that the solution starts with building awareness of the problem. This means talking about mental health and suicide at company meetings and in private conversations. It means encouraging employees and contractors to share their problems and concerns and seek help when they need it. It means addressing opioid and mental health concerns as part of regular healthcare coverage. I believe this topic should be standard in a new employee orientation and in jobsite orientation. If employees know what resources are available to them they may consider using it more often.

Excellent resources are available for employers wiling to tackle this issue. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) offers a ten action steps to Stand Up for suicide prevention. These steps include such items as seeking out employee input on mental health issues, enlisting top management to take bold action, building a caring culture, improving mental health literacy, teaching coping skills for life challenges, screening for mental health conditions and substance abuse, training supervisors and others on how to have difficult conversations, promoting the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, managing behavioral health problems in the workplace, and providing effective and compassionate grief and trauma support after a suicide death. CIASP offers detailed planning documents, training videos, posters and wallet cards, and other resources. In addition, through December 31, 2020, CIASP is offering, at no cost, online suicide prevention training from LivingWorks, a leader in suicide prevention training.

As we wind down the construction season, it is even more imperative to talk about suicide. Construction workers are stressed and have been in this Covid-impacted environment with little to no answers about what is going to happen. Are we going to get shut down? Will there be work in the spring? Is my family safe? Using a simple toolbox talk or stand down to just bring light to this subject is a great start and could be enough to prompt someone to get help and support they need. As an industry, we can help find the answers.

Bruce Morton is a senior loss control consultant at the Milwaukee office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. He can be reached at bruce.morton@marshmma.com.

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