Accoring to the Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2020
Bayview Asphalt is a small paving company, employing about two dozen people. Over the past decade, the Seaside, Ore., business has lost two employees to suicide.
The company isn’t alone in the industry in dealing with such tragedy. Among occupations in the U.S., workers in construction and extraction face the highest rate of suicide, according to a January report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was based on data from 32 states participating in the National Violent Death Reporting System.
“I don’t want to lose more employees,” said Tim Wirkkala, Bayview’s operations manager.
In an effort to lower the risk, Bayview has begun showing all new hires a safety video featuring a discussion of mental-health awareness. The company also recently printed up shirts for workers with mottoes such as “Never lose hope” and the number for a suicide hotline.
The goal is to shake up the construction industry’s culture. While the industry might project a tough-guy image, its workers are especially vulnerable to suicide, according to experts. They point to the high concentration of men—who are more at risk for suicide—as well as the transient work, low pay, tough schedules and physical rigors that can lead to self-medication and substance abuse.
“It’s almost in our DNA. We don’t talk about our feelings,” said Cal Beyer, director of risk management for Lakeside Industries, Bayview’s Seattle-area parent company. “The culture is stoic, as is typical of male-dominated industries.”
The push to curb suicides in the industry has been gathering momentum. The industry group Construction Financial Management Association has developed suicide prevention guides for companies, with chapters holding around a dozen summits on the topic in recent years. Other industry task forces to address the issue have sprung up in Washington and Oregon.
Many say suicide prevention is a safety imperative. In 2018, for example, 10 construction workers in Washington state died on the job. Yet far more died by suicide: At least 125 people classified as working in the state’s construction and extraction industries—which includes mining and oil drilling—killed themselves that year.
Nearly 38,000 working-age Americans died by suicide in 2017, a 40% jump in less than two decades. Jane Pearson, special adviser on suicide research at the National Institute of Mental Health, said she is encouraged that more employers are addressing the issue. In the same way many workplaces offer opportunities for employees to have their blood pressure taken or cholesterol evaluated, she said mental-health training sessions can make workers more sensitive to their colleagues’ needs—and aware of their own.
In recent years, construction fatalities nationwide have remained stuck at around 1,000 a year despite advances in safety technology, said Eric Stenman, president of U.S. buildings at infrastructure group Balfour Beatty. As a potential distraction from often physically dangerous work, mental health should be firmly on the industry’s agenda, he said.
“All firms of any size or competence level—whether remodeling homes or building hospitals—need to be aware,” he said.
Balfour Beatty’s safety posters now include illustrations emphasizing the importance of mental wellness. The company also has trained around 250 managers and foremen in mental-health awareness and outfitted their hard hats with “Need to Talk?” stickers encouraging co-workers to reach out if they need assistance.
One of the largest general contractors in the U.S., Hoffman Construction Co., is also encouraging workers to talk frankly about their emotions. The company has begun converting part of their on-site construction trailers into “safe rooms” where workers can come before their shifts for peer-to-peer discussions about mental-health struggles they may be facing. Hoffman is planning to roll out similar initiatives across its workforce, said Sheri Sundstrom, workers’ compensation program manager.
“We have an obligation,” said Michael Bennett, vice president at The Cianbro Cos., a construction firm that operates in more than 40 states. “You could turn a blind eye and say that’s not us—but it is us.” The company is having 200 supervisors undergo mental-health training, part of a program it kicked off in July.
“We don’t pretend to be professionals, but if we can raise our awareness and recognize the signs, we should provide people with help,” he said. Such help could include referrals to counseling, leaves of absence and temporarily reassigned work duties, he said.
One challenge is the construction industry’s fragmented nature. There are hundreds of thousands of companies in the U.S., the most of which have fewer than 10 employees, with no human-resources departments and often minimal benefits.
Eleni Reed, who works on sustainability for construction company Lendlease, said the company hopes to use its platform to try to help influence others. To date, around 10% of its 1,600 U.S. employees have taken an 8-hour workshop on mental health and suicide prevention. Lendlease also is piloting a shorter, similar training it hopes to eventually roll out for thousands of its contractors.
“We want to drive change through the entire sector,” she said.
When mental health posters first started appearing at Lakeside Industries work sites a few years ago, Mike Schute, then in plant operations, said he and co-workers laughed.
“We were rough and tumble, loudmouth, judgmental guys just there to make fun of each other,” Mr. Schute said. But the culture is changing, he said, with more workers willing to talk about mental health on the job: “It’s definitely still uncomfortable. But it’s out there, and not as shocking as it was.”
Write to Te-Ping Chen at email@example.com