Keeping Construction Workers Safe: Physically and Mentally

Construction workers may be seen — or see themselves — as tough guys (or gals). But another “T” word apparently applies to many of them: troubled.

According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control report, the construction industry has the second highest suicide rate among all industries, after farming, fishing and forestry.

This revelation shook the industry.  The Construction Financial Management Association, in association with the other groups including the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors of America, took action and formed the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP).  The organization’s purpose is to educate employers and co-workers on how to spot the signs of suicide and help prevent someone from taking his or her life and to advocate for a more open culture in which there is no shame in discussing and seeking help for mental illness.

Sally Spencer-Thomas, PhD, clinical psychologist and suicide prevention expert, wrote “A Construction Industry Blueprint: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace,” which has become one of the de facto guides for the CIASP. Citing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, she said there are obvious signs t hat someone may be contemplating suicide.  They include:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Seeking a way to kill themselves, like searching for suicide methods online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated or behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or becoming isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

People might hesitate to approach someone who is exhibiting these behaviors for fear of making matters worse, or might bristle at the idea of getting too involved in a co-worker's personal life. But, according to Spencer-Thomas, it's usually a person who has a relationship with the troubled individual who is in the best position to save his or her life.

"Co-workers can be trained to identify the signs and ask direct questions about suicide in compassionate ways," she said. But first they should be educated about available mental health resources, such as crisis phone line and text services, company-sponsored employee assistance programs and local mental health resources, so they can suggest places to go for help.

What should they say? Above all, they should avoid judging or being confrontational. "Empathy and normalizing are important conversation tools," she said. "People usually respond defensively when they feel they are being judged."

Never ask a person directly if they're suicidal, said Spencer-Thomas. Instead, you could say something like, "I've noticed you are going through a lot right now, and I’m concerned as your friend.” If the person opens up about his or her troubles and if it seems appropriate, you could follow up with a comment like, “You know, sometimes when people are in as much distress as you currently are, they think of suicide. I wonder if this is true for you. If so, I have some ideas on what might help you get through this tough time.”

It's important, Spencer-Thomas said, to focus on offering compassion and hope.

Employers can do their part by creating a jobsite atmosphere that values wellness —including mental wellness — and fostering a spirit of teamwork. According to Spencer-Thomas, employers should address the issue of mental health in safety meetings, encourage discussion and promote the use of mental health resources.  

In an industry where there is such camaraderie, there's no reason for anyone to have to go it alone.