Risk-taking, stoicism and self-reliance. Those are all character traits often seen among those in the construction industry. Unfortunately, they’re also among the traits that translate into someone least likely to reach out when they’re in trouble.
And, that, according to mental-health experts, explains at least in part why suicide rates among construction and extraction workers are among the highest in the U.S.
What are some of the other reasons for so many suicides in the construction trade?
The often-transient nature of the construction workforce doesn’t help. Working in the same community builds a sense of belonging and, more to the point, generally means better access to healthcare. That can’t happen when a person’s constantly moving from one place to another for a job.
The opioid abuse crisis also is fueling the problem. Opioid abuse is associated with a 75% increased likelihood of a suicide attempt.
The extent of suicides in the construction trade was captured in a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 20% of all men who died by suicide in the United States were in the construction/extraction industry.
There were 47,173 suicides in the U.S. in 2017, and 27,404 of them were men ages 20-64. If 20% of these men were in construction/extraction, that would mean more than 5,000 men working in this industry died by suicide.
As dramatic as those figures sound, consider that the four leading causes of death in construction – falls, being struck by an object, electrocution and being caught in between objects – cause “just” 600 deaths a year.
Suicide, in other words, causes nine times more deaths than all of the four most commonly recognized causes of death in construction combined.
OSHA has taken notice of the trend.
Suicide in the construction trade is “very concerning,” Loren Sweatt, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said during a recent meeting of the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health in Washington, D.C.
“I would really like to think the more information we can put out there … that we can reach the person that’s in crisis and help those folks,” Sweatt said.
The safety advisory committee is now working to develop ideas to help OSHA address the issue.
In the meantime, the CDC notes the workplace can be an important place for suicide prevention efforts because that’s where many adults spend a great deal of their time.
Workplace suicide prevention strategies can include employee assistance programs, wellness programs, technology to provide online mental health screenings and campaigns to reduce the stigma of mental illness. The CDC’s suicide prevention webpage is a good place to start for any employer looking for help.
One of the most effective tools to address suicides in the construction trade may be to simply talk to workers about what is going on in their lives so that they feel they have an outlet to discuss issues they’re experiencing.
Suicide, in other words, should be added as a subject of safety meetings and company communications.
Safety professionals can have a big impact by simply asking direct questions, listening carefully to the answers and directing workers to the appropriate resources.
Most people who seek treatment for depression are treated successfully through therapy or medication. Employers just need to help get the conversation started.
Michael Kline is a CCIG Vice President. Reach him at Michael.Kline@thinkccig.com or 720-212-2042.
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