By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter
This article was published by the DJC on August 20 in Buildings Bridges and Roads, and can be viewed here (subscription required).
While discussing safety in most of my previous columns, my focus has been on traditional safety-related matters: work zone safety, accident prevention, workplace safety, and similar topics.
This month’s column is going to take a different turn.
About a year ago, a reporter called to ask if I had been hearing about, been aware of, or had any comment on increased incidence of suicide in the construction industry.
Frankly, the question caught me completely off guard.
For someone who is responsible for knowing as much about what is happening in the construction industry as possible, I was completely unaware that suicide was an issue at all, let alone a major issue.
At AGC’s recent summer convention earlier this month, a number of educational breakout sessions were held to provide training and education for construction industry professionals. One of these breakout sessions focused on the question of suicide in construction. This session was at once sobering and inspiring.
The course instructors, Cal Beyer of Lakeside industries and Mandy Kime of AGC of Washington, provided a thought-provoking, in-depth, and compassionate look at the challenge facing the industry in this previously taboo area.
According to Mr. Beyer, in 2016 there were more than 44,000 suicides in the United States. That year, the Centers for Disease Control released information studying suicides by occupation. Construction had the most total suicides and the second-highest rate of suicide of any industry sector. This rate turns out to be four times higher than in the general population. Suicides by men in the industry constitute almost 80% of the total.
For a variety of reasons, a collective response from the construction industry to this growing crisis has been picking up steam. Companies such as Lakeside, through the efforts of Mr. Beyer, have begun to lead the way.
The first step is to acknowledge the problem. As is the case with much of the rest of the industry, the first steps begin with management. Company leaders need to understand there is a problem and acknowledge it.
The second step is to adopt a concrete health and safety roadmap that includes suicide prevention. If a company already has programs in place to support a culture of care in the workplace, they are already ahead. Companies without such a culture face a much more challenging situation.
Once the issue is acknowledged and a health and safety roadmap is in place, company management and safety professionals must begin the arduous task of communicating the problem to their employees, as well as embarking on communicating resources available and suicide prevention strategies.
Most of us would ask: why is this a problem in the construction industry?
While there is no single answer to this question, there are a number of variables that begin to present themselves.
While its basic nature is changing, the construction industry is dominated by males. Construction employees work in an industry that can experience turbulent economic cycles, which can subject construction workers to significant financial and family stress. Men are also notorious for “stuffing“ mental or physical health challenges. In short, they are reluctant to ask for help.
Another challenging factor is the nature of the construction business. There are significant budget, productivity, schedule, quality, and safety challenges. These conditions can create an enormous amount of pressure, and individuals who are facing other serious challenges in their lives can be at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Fortunately, the industry is beginning to rise to the challenge that suicide presents. Joining forces with other organizations around the nation, there are a number of resources available to individuals in the industry who are wrestling with thoughts of suicide, to their families, and to business owners and colleagues trying to help.
Suicide is preventable. The national suicide prevention lifeline is a free, confidential service that is available to anyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It provides crisis intervention for people having thoughts about self-harm or who are considering taking their life. Their telephone number is 800-273-8255.
Given the stresses of everyday life, combined with the challenges of dealing in a high stress, high risk industry, it is perhaps to be expected that suicide is a rising challenge. But it does not have to be a foregone conclusion.
AGC salutes individuals like Mr. Beyer and Ms. Kime for the work they are doing to educate construction industry workers and professionals, and the public at large. Significant progress has been made, but more must be done.
Industry leaders often say, with respect to safety, that their highest priority is getting their employees home safely at night. To accomplish that goal, we must be aware of and take steps to prevent, every challenge, every threat to someone safety.
Suicide prevention efforts are one more step toward accomplishing that goal.
Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or email@example.com.