Piling Canada

A Hidden Danger

Suicide is killing construction workers. What can we do?

Yuttana Jeenamool/123rf

Construction sites can be high-risk working environments; potentially hazardous conditions are often everyday job components. According to Canadian insurance firm Aviva, the top causes of construction injuries and fatalities in the country are slips, trips and falls; falls from heights; struck by moving vehicles or falling objects; and electrocution.

However, a hidden danger has been taking the lives of construction workers across the country at even greater rates than the top causes identified in Canada.

“There are five times as many workers who die by suicide than by physical job site fatalities [each year],” said Michelle Walker, chair of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). The Centers for Disease Control released a report in 2018 concluding that more construction workers die by suicide each year than any other industry. Outside of an industry lens, says Walker, the construction industry suicide rate is four times that of the general population.

“There’s definitely a distinct need in the construction industry [to focus on suicide prevention],” said Walker. “The effort we put into job site safety and preventative factors needs to also be put into emotional factors and mental wellbeing. [We need to implement] the safety 24/7 approach – making it as important that our workers get back to work in the morning as it is important that they go home at the end of each shift.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, many people with mental illnesses are unaware that their thoughts or behaviour are atypical and consider their signs or symptoms a normal part of life. This makes it especially critical that workplaces be better equipped to recognize and discuss mental health issues to keep employees safe.

“People spend more time at work than they do outside of work; we have a definite role in recognizing symptoms of mental illness or suicide risk factors,” said Walker. “If somebody is dealing with a severe mental illness or is at risk of suicide, they’re at a place of despair. Their mind is not going to be on the job and they’re not going to be safe for themselves or others on the work site. It’s in everybody’s best interest to help them.”

Risk factors: Sound familiar?

The majority of the Canadian construction workforce is male; consider that men – especially white men in their early 20s through their 50s – are most at risk for suicide and it’s easy to understand by demographics alone why the construction workforce could be identified as having a heightened risk for suicide. 

However, looking beyond statistics alone, the nature of certain aspects of the construction industry create risk factors that compound the concern for people predisposed to suicidal thoughts.

Typical construction culture

“Culture is probably one of the biggest factors, and one of the areas that we can prevent,” said Walker. “[Think about] the traditional construction culture – the tough guy, getting [the job] done at all costs.”

The manner in which leaders are often promoted in the industry also has a role to play.

“People typically get promoted based on their technical abilities, and not necessarily on their leadership or management skills,” said Walker. “This can create issues for people from not having clearer, positive leadership or having leaders whose only mode of directing or guiding their employees is through negative, almost stigmatizing behaviour.” Unhealthy management styles, especially those involving shame and humiliation as part of the discipline process, can feed into a toxic culture.

“When you look at the main contributing factors to suicide risk, perceived burdensome is one – ‘I’m no good, the world would be better off without me’ – these types of thoughts,” said Walker. “When you put together that lack of belongingness with a manager who is unhealthfully guiding and not disciplining with positive behaviour, you can see where that can be a huge contributing factor to someone at risk.” 

Remote work and industry demands

Remote construction projects require workers to be away from their homes, sometimes for long periods of time. Separation from family or friends can be isolating and restrict access to those critical support systems, in addition to the family issues that can result from extended absences. 

For projects in any location, the low margin for error that exists in construction can create extreme pressure for some people.

“If you screw something up on a construction project, it can be a really big deal,” said Walker. “There’s not a lot of room for slight slipups – that pressure can build on people.” 

Beyond that, changing crews and the seasonal nature of the work provides an inconsistent team environment, creating a barrier in what could be a more stable support system to a person at risk for suicide. Additionally, too much time between projects or layoffs can result in financial issues, adding more anxiety on a person who isn’t able to healthfully process stress.

Risk-seeking and access to lethal means

“We’re not born wanting to end our lives; that would be counterproductive to the human species,” said Walker. “But by living through dangerous situations or witnessing accidents, people get desensitized to seeing people die or get hurt. This is a reason that law enforcement or first responders are highly at risk for suicide.”

When you consider the construction industry, a project could involve working at high heights, in deep trenches or around heavy equipment, or in other environments that would make many people feel uncomfortable.

“People who work in construction already have that sense of risk-seeking and being comfortable with risk and dangerous behaviours because they have to be in order to get the job done,” said Walker. “But that can also go too far in somebody who has the propensity and that capacity to take their own life.” 

A job site also provides access to lethal means.

“We’ve heard stories of electrocutions that weren’t accidental or falls from high places where everyone was tied off all shift, and then someone was suddenly untied,” said Walker.

Chronic pain

Years of physical work and the natural wear and tear that comes from a physical job, in addition to any potential workplace injury, can lead to chronic pain. For a person who feels that they may not be able to continue doing their job, chronic pain can turn into a sense of hopelessness.

“[They may think,] ‘I don’t have any other skills; this is all I know how to do and I physically can’t do it anymore,’” said Walker. “[This situation] can lead to addiction, whether that be to opioids that were possibly prescribed properly at the onset, or self-medication either by alcohol or drugs to cope with the pain. Substance abuse may also be a coping mechanism to someone dealing with an untreated mental illness or a personal situation that they don’t know how to manage. Substance abuse and the spiral that it can create in a person’s life is a huge contributing factor [for suicide].”

Identifying a person at risk

Noticing changes in a person’s behaviour is the most accurate way to identify someone at risk of suicide.

“This is why there’s a need to create relationships and have a little bit more of a consistent team aspect to crews and construction,” said Walker.

However, there are some behaviours that anyone can watch for.

“[Pay attention to] somebody who acts anxious, agitated or reckless, or if they’re increasing drug or alcohol use – they may be self-medicating,” said Walker. “If someone is talking about feeling trapped, wanting to die, being a burden, feeling hopeless – using those words is not normal for someone to talk about.”

A person at risk may appear sad or depressed most of the time, or they may seem to experience extreme mood swings from day to day. They might withdraw from groups and not want to be connected to other people.

“These are more personal, but there are [also] definite signs in the workplace that get misinterpreted as performance issues,” said Walker. 

Changed behaviours such as a decrease in problem-
solving ability, decreased self-confidence or productivity, or an increase in absences or tardiness might indicate an issue. Starting conflicts with co-workers or a change in safety performance with more frequent near-miss accidents or injuries could be a warning sign.

“At least the question should be asked, ‘We’ve noticed these things, is something going on?’” said Walker. “You can see the danger in just addressing this [with disciplinary action]; ask somebody what’s causing the change in their behaviour.”

This is your problem

“If you think that you don’t have a problem with suicide or mental health in your workplace, you’re probably wrong – you just don’t know about it,” said Walker. “With any other safety practice, we’re not reactive; we don’t wait until somebody dies or is severely injured to start putting safety practices into place. Just like we take the preventative approach when it comes to physical safety, we need to take that preventative approach with mental health as well.”

She also points out that beyond being a workforce issue, suicide is a societal issue that can indirectly affect businesses.

“It may not be somebody in your workplace at risk of suicide, but maybe it’s their kid, spouse or friend,” she said. “By training our workforce, we can become part of the bigger societal shift in addressing this. If [your employee]’s son or daughter, for example, dies by suicide and they could have helped prevent it, that’s going to affect their ability to be a productive employee, and it’s going to increase their risk of suicide.” According to research, people who lose a loved one to suicide are twice as likely to die by suicide themselves. 

Start talking about it

Talking about suicide can be awkward or uncomfortable at first, but it’s important for companies to persist in order to normalize the conversation and begin breaking down the stigma attached to topics surrounding mental health.

“You become more comfortable the more times you hear something – it’s less shocking, less frightening,” said Walker.

To begin normalizing the topic in the workplace, include it in as many different sources as possible.

“Every safety meeting that we have, it’s talked about in some way or another so that [our employees] are hearing [the message] consistently,” said Walker.

Hang posters, use company newsletters or other internal communications, and have a toolbox talk about suicide and mental health.

“We [mention mental health] in our new hire safety training video, so from the first new hire orientation and onwards, employees are seeing it,” said Walker. “When we talk about benefits, we point out the behavioural health care that’s accessible to normalize using it like you access any other health care.”

Getting employees comfortable about having these conversations and then educating about warning signs are important first steps to preventing suicide in the construction industry. Learning to recognize warning signs will empower employees to step in.

“If somebody is being unsafe or if there’s an unsafe condition on a job site, employees are empowered, encouraged and even required to make sure that work stops until that risk is addressed,” said Walker. “Just like that, they need to be empowered if they think that somebody is at risk of hurting themselves, that they need to step up and get that person connected with help.”

Company leadership has an integral role to play, as well.

“Having vocal leadership support saying that this is a required attitude shift [is critical],” said Walker. Company leadership needs to display, through words and actions, that workers can feel safe asking for support for themselves or for others.

“Make sure they know that they’re not going to get punished if they need to take a day off to see a counsellor or if they ask for some accommodation because of a mental health concern or family crisis situation,” said Walker. “Help them know that support is there and have policies that are tolerant of that so people aren’t afraid of losing their job or getting someone else’s job in trouble if they say, ‘Hey, I think that [they] might have trouble with drinking or drugs.’”

Walker believes that the construction industry will be able to address suicide prevention in its workforce due to its already established focus on safety.

“It’s really one of the beauties of construction,” she said. “As difficult a topic as this is for many to buy into, those who choose to buy into it can really do so successfully. The culture [in construction] has already been for decades that it is our responsibility to keep our employees safe, and this is just another aspect to that.”

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention

CIASP was created in 2016, as an initiative by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA).

“We had been taking steps within CFMA to address [suicide prevention in construction], but our audience was the CFOs and controllers of companies, and while that was an important audience, we knew we needed to get out much more broadly to the industry,” said Walker. “We formed CIASP to bring the industry together and get this information out and get other groups engaging contractors to help save as many lives as possible.”

There are a host of resources on CIASP’s website –
www.preventconstructionsuicide.com – for construction companies that want to begin addressing suicide prevention and other mental health initiatives in their workplace.

Access printable posters to hang throughout your workplace to start getting people familiar with the topic and how to talk about it. Customizable toolbox talks can be used by any organization and a template on how to frame a safety discussion that revolves around mental health is provided. CIASP also provides wallet cards that outline the various warning signs and include crisis lines so people can have anytime access to the information.

“Those are three simple, no-cost steps that companies can take to start getting this in front of their people,” said Walker.

To go further, companies can do a needs analysis self-assessment using the resources on the CIASP website.

“It just takes companies asking themselves some questions: ‘Do we have these things in place, do we have these conversations, do we even have the means to have these conversations?’” said Walker. “It’s not graded or ranked, it’s just for awareness and then provides some action steps to take based on responses to the questions.”

CIASP also provides an integration checklist to get started and help pinpoint who in an organization should be involved and what their role would be.

“It needs to be a whole company effort,” said Walker. “If it’s just the safety person, you’re [missing] so many opportunities to get in front of people and get the message out.” Piling Canada

This article originally appeared in PileDriver and is reproduced here with permission.

Category: Safety

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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