Expert Commentary

Suicide in the Construction Industry: Something We Need To Talk about

Construction is a unique field. We spend more working hours with those on a site than our families. I have truly loved many of the people I work with. They are closer than some of my family and will remain so. Though we may share intimate stories about our failures or the loss of friends due to cancer or age, we never talk about suicide.


Construction Safety
January 2018

I had a bit of soul searching this morning, and the following are my reasons.

  • Somewhere in schooling at St. John the Baptist, "Sister Someone" compared suicide to sin.
  • It makes me uncomfortable for I truly know little about the signs and symptoms.
  • In my head, suicide is a crime. When trained as an emergency medical technician, we would defer anything related to suicide (or attempts) to the police responding and back away from the scene.
  • I have never had a suicidal thought. More often than not, I am very happy with my life.
  • My thoughts on suicide were formed by my parents who saw suicide as something the weak did.
  • It's not part of my conversation. I may bluntly ask a friend about the splotch on their head and if they had that "checked out" by a doctor, but when someone is down, including my children, I would never think to ask how bad things are or whether they are "that bad." If someone is feeling "down" or "miserable" that may be a red flag.

Hitting Home

It was Thursday evening, so I called Tim who was working as a project manager overseas. A pretty place to work, it was far from his home, and the project was behind schedule. We talked for about 30 minutes and reviewed my next trip over. We discussed the project and the people who worked there, people he loved. What he was doing over the weekend with his young family and the most recent stories about his teenage son's driving escapades. Saturday morning I got a call that Tim had committed suicide. I had no idea why.

Tim's death affected many, from those he worked with, the client, and the job. As the project manager, he carried that construction effort on his shoulders. He was proud to be working overseas on a worthy project for the area, a school for kids. Though we had professional counseling coordinated to support those on the site afterward, we still see his name on documents, and it's a sad reminder. A rack for hardhats had been erected at the site since the start. His helmet, the only one missing. I hope his son has it.

I miss Tim. A photo of that hard hat rack hangs by my desk. I took that photo, and it makes me sad. He was one of the good guys we should not have lost.

Some Background

At the 2016 IRMI Construction Risk Conference, Sally Spencer-Thomas won the annual Gary E. Bird Horizon Award for her work in suicide prevention. As I sat in the audience, I wondered why. So, we met for lunch afterward. She explained that construction is ranked as number two for suicides. Architects and engineers rank number five. I had no idea.

Rates of Suicide Per 100,000 Population by Sex and Ranked Overall by Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) Group—17 States, 2012

SOC code Occupational group Overall Male Female
45 Farming, fishing, and forestry 84.5 90.5
47 Construction and extraction 53.3 52.5
49 Installation, maintenance, and repair 47.9 47.5
51 Production 34.5 39.5 10.8
17 Architecture and engineering 32.2 36.3
33 Protective service 30.5 34.1 14.1
27 Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media 24.3 32.9 12.4
15 Computer and mathematical 23.3 32.8 12.5
53 Transportation and material moving 22.3 30.2 4.8

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6525a1.htm

When I look at the statistics, I see friends and family. My son, Andy, a cop in New York City, is number six, and my other son, Tim, is in construction (number two).

Operations, Human Resources, or Safety?

In my opinion, suicide prevention falls into the human resources (HR) and safety groups. We want to help those needing it, but a distracted worker also threatens others. Site safety staff and HR often have the ear of the workers. We look for those doing well, those doing something unsafe, and those who are a bit off—complaining of a hangover, a fight with a partner, or fielding calls during work from creditors. First intervention could be supported by a trained safety manager on your project or someone in HR getting a call from a concerned supervisor.

There is also an operations side to suicide. Not to take anything away from the loss, but a suicide will affect those around the person who is gone. Work will stop to allow grieving and counseling. Often, counseling is needed but will not be asked for. The person lost has to be replaced, and in an isolated area that will take time. Suicide is a project risk we cannot overlook. That's an operations and risk responsibility. We all share a key to helping out.

What Can We Do about Something Few Understand

During the planning for one of our past National Construction Safety weeks, I suggested to some of the top authorities that suicide prevention would be a great topic to discuss with our workers as a national conversation like we do with fall prevention or wearing gloves when working. I received not one response, immediately reminding me of the now ironic George Carlin line, "Suicide Hotline … one moment please."

For this column, I reached out again to Ms. Spencer-Thomas and did some research on suicide in the United States but also overseas. Not uplifting reading, but I discovered some great information we should all be aware of.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has targeted suicide, finding that approximately 800,000 persons die from suicide globally each year—1 death every 40 seconds. And there is solid data on rates. The WHO considered 60 countries that have collected good data on their suicide rates. Among WHO partners, 28 countries have a national strategy for suicide prevention. See "WHO Releases Guidance on Responsible Reporting on Suicide" for further information.

The United Kingdom has stepped up as well to stop suicides in construction. The most recent program out of the United Kingdom, Mates in Mind, is a great example of opening up about suicide and suicide in construction. One of the first things you see when you go to the website is the "why" of the campaign:

Suicide is the single biggest cause of death of men aged under 45 in the UK, with 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men (ONS, NISRA, GRO 2014). The workforce in the construction sector is predominantly male, and has a particular range of factors recognized as likely stressors—for example heavy workloads, long working hours, travel, family separation, fear of redundancy and job insecurity. Any combination of these factors, and others, can potentially lead to mental ill health. Research has shown that common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety and their adverse consequences disproportionately affect those that are poorer and more disadvantage.

From the US study, "Suicide Rates by Occupational Group—17 States, 2012," produced by the Centers for Disease Control:

Suicide prevention activities directed toward persons aged ≥16 years include enhancing connectedness to family and friends, encouraging help-seeking for persons exhibiting signs of distress or suicidality, and supporting efforts to reduce stigma associated with help-seeking and mental illness. Some potential suicide prevention strategies include workplace approaches, such as employee assistance programs, which might serve as gateways to behavioral health treatment. Workplace wellness programs can provide education and training for staff members and supervisors to aid in recognition of suicide warning signs (e.g., withdrawal, increased substance abuse, agitation, and putting affairs in order). Employers also can use technology to provide online mental health screenings, web-based tools for mental health information, and mental health screening kiosks for their employees, as well as ensure that employees are aware of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org; 1–800–273–8255).

Moving Forward

Since I have little knowledge of suicide prevention and have made mastering that a goal of 2018, I reached out to Ms. Spencer-Thomas once again and challenged her for the top four things I could share about suicide to my readers.

  • Many people have experienced suicidal thoughts, if not you, some of your closest family and friends have—you just don't know this about them. Most people have a story to tell about how suicide has impacted their lives, but because we don't talk about it, we just don't know this about each other. Most people who have experienced suicidal thoughts get to the other side of their crisis and don't go back; many are transformed by the experience and make life changes that speak to inspiring resilience.
  • People who live with suicidal thoughts often don't want to die, they just want their pain to stop. If they were less miserable, they wouldn't be suicidal. So, let's treat people with compassion and support to help them experience less despair. This effort is not that complex—sending a genuine, nondemanding, and caring message to people you are thinking about can have a profound effect on their mood and sense of connection.
  • Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention—not just the experts. Get trained in how to identify warning signs and risk factors. Learn how to ask the "suicide" question. Get to know local and national mental health and crisis resources so that you can be a knowledgeable referral resource.
  • Workplaces play a critical role in the chain of survival of suicide. Most people who die of suicide are of working age, and yet most workplaces do very little suicide prevention and often do a very poor job of supporting people in suicide grief. We can do better. Workplace leadership can boldly stand up and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority. We can train our employees, participate in mental health screening events, support local crisis centers, and much more.

I also asked Ms. Spencer-Thomas for some tangible risk factors to share during our recent safety efforts.

Warning Signs Risk Factors
Talking about wanting to die Hopelessness
Seeking for a way to kill themselves Impulsive behavior
Expressing hopelessness Mental health conditions
Feeling trapped Hopelessness
Feeling like a burden Family history of suicide
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs History of trauma
Reckless or agitated behavior Major physical illnesses
Change in sleeping patterns Previous suicide attempt(s)
Withdrawing Exposure to suicide
Extreme mood swings Financial loss
Lost relationship(s)
Access to deadly items (e.g., guns)
Isolation
Lack of access to support
Cultural shame about mental health

Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/how-we-can-all-prevent-suicide/

Conclusion

Please take the time to consider your stance on suicide in your organization. Has it ever been discussed? If not, now is the time. Take a look at the resources out there and get trained on how to recognize and prevent suicide. Writing this column opened my eyes to some great resources, but once again, the fact remains that we are lagging other countries in taking this on. Is a national campaign the answer? I suspect not, but knowing whom to call and when is the answer.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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