Construction workers around the world are far more likely to die by their own hand than to be killed in an accident on site. But what is being done help prevent the thousands of suicides which take place every year in the construction industry and is it enough?
Note: This is part two of a two-part editorial series covering mental health within construction. To access part one, click here.
Australia is one of the countries leading the way in researching construction industry suicide.
Australian construction industry charity Mates In Construction analyzed dozens of coroners reports to identify the common factors which had pushed men in construction over the edge.
It found that these included job insecurity, transient working conditions, issues connected to business and financial management and fear of legal prosecution.
Substance abuse, alcohol use and mental health issues were also prominent factors alongside family breakdown and the lack of access to children.
How onsite training can help suicidal employees
The charity, which was founded in 2008 with the aim of reducing suicide rates in the Australian state of Queensland, provides a program of on-site suicide prevention training to workers in the construction industry in order to help them notice changes in their co-workers’ behavior and to encourage and support those in crisis to seek help.
Since then the charity has trained more than 230,000 workers across more than 1,000 sites. The charity has also recently expanded to New Zealand.
Are suicide prevention programs effective?
A 2020 report by MIC and Melbourne University found that, since the program has been introduced, suicide rates among construction workers across Australia have declined by almost 8%, bringing the level closer to the male average in many Australian states.
“When Mates was started in 2008, suicide was seen almost entirely as a health problem requiring health responses,” says Mates in Construction CEO, Chris Lockwood. “Programs such as Mates have shown that we achieve much more when we engage all of the community.”
In the UK too, a number of charities and organizations are working to support construction workers who are in crisis.
The Lighthouse Club, a charity which has been providing help and support to construction workers in the UK since 1956, also runs and staffs the Construction Industry Helpline in the UK and Ireland, has helped to establish a Building Mental Health online portal to help companies develop a positive mental health culture.
Like a number of organizations around the world, the charity offers mental health first aider courses aimed at training construction workers to support colleagues who are struggling.
So far it has trained more than 284 mental health first aid instructors who have delivered 3,349 mental health awareness courses and have trained over 5,000 front line mental health first aiders.
The result of this effort mean that the construction industry now has the highest number of Mental Health First Aid Instructors of any similar industry.
Why are construction worker suicides still rising?
But Bill Hill, Lighthouse Club chief executive, says that despite this effort, the latest research shows that construction suicides in the UK continue to rise.
“It could be that our messages are getting through to the white-collar workers, but we’re simply not reaching our ‘boots on the ground’ workforce,” he says.
“Or it could be that that as 53% of our workforce are self-employed, agency or zero-hour contractors the socio-economic pressures are greater and message isn’t getting down the supply chain.”
“The focus has to be on pulling together collectively and investing in more pro-active resources to ensure that the situation does not continue to decline,” he adds.
“We need to look at different interventions for different occupational groups. What might work for a site manager may not be relevant for a bricklayer.”
Mates in Mind, a charity established in 2016 with support from the British Safety Council, also offers mental health training to the UK industry.
It has built a community of more than 185 supporter organizations, reaching more than 187,000 individuals across the sector.
Suicide prevention in the U.S.
Back in the U.S., ABC’s Sizemore says that construction organizations are attempting to implement strategies that have been shown to work in both Australia and the UK.
Working together with fellow industry body, the Construction Industry Alliance, ABC recently launched its own www.preventconstructionsuicide.com website.
It offers online and offline training and invites construction companies to take a pledge to stand up for suicide awareness and advises incorporating suicide awareness into existing “toolbox” safety talks.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg but we need to create the kind of narrative where colleagues are able to say you’re just not here today, is everything ok? We need to equip and empower to make a difference,” Sizemore says.
“We have some very successful contractors who do things very well but the vast majority of construction firms in the USA are small shops of 25-50 employees with no human resources platform and one person running accounts and personnel.
“It’s small business America. We’re pushing resources out there to help them understand what to do,” he adds.
For Sizemore, the key thing is to persuade US construction companies to commit to change.
“It’s important to have management fully on board from the C-suite [executive level] downwards so we can really get the message out to people. If we can get the highest-ranking official engaging then three quarters of the battle is won,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter if the workforce is 50,000 or five, the leadership must commit to change the culture by putting systems and processes in place. It’s how to communicate to employees that its ok to have that conversation.”
Suicide prevention strategies
In Sweden too, Åberg says that industry bodies are just starting to work towards implementing their own suicide prevention strategy after collaborating with Mates in Construction with research.
“Our proposed study will utilize both quantitative and qualitative methods to increase our understanding of how work-related exposures are related to suicide risk in men,” she says.
“Findings from the present project might guide an intervention strategy to decrease premature death by suicide among construction workers.”
“More could be done,” she says. “New knowledge is needed as an important step on the way to developing a better understanding of modifiable risk factors and possible preventive measures for suicidal behavior in the construction industry.”
Back in the UK, Andy Stevens is evangelical in his efforts to spread the word about mental health awareness and to persuade construction workers to open up.
“I’m a 6 ft 3, an ex-rugby player with a face like a kicked-in biscuit tin – I’m not the sort of person you expect to stand up and talk about this,” he says.
“But if one person working in construction can take something from this, then it’ll help.”
If you are struggling with mental health and need to speak with someone, the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention urges you to call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for immediate assistance: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)