OSHA, industry partners combine forces against suicide in construction

By Riley SimpsonAugust 31, 2021

OSHA and leaders in the industry are combining efforts to raise awareness about and give resources to combat suicide in construction

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated the construction suicide rate at 53.2 per 100,000, which was the highest figure across all industries and a rate four times higher than the general population.

To combat this persisting issue, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formed a task force of industry partners, unions and educators to raise awareness of the types of stress that can push construction workers into depression and toward suicide.

The task force is also encouraging industry employers to share and discuss available resources with their workers, especially during the weeklong Suicide Prevention Safety Stand-Down event, from Sept. 6-10.

According to an OSHA release, this year’s stand-down aims to raise awareness about the unique challenges construction workers face, and the weeklong event will coincide with National Suicide Prevention Month in September.

“Work-related stress can have severe impacts on mental health and without proper support may lead to substance abuse and even suicide,” said Jim Frederick, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “Workers in construction face many work-related stressors that may increase their risk factors for suicide, such as the uncertainty of seasonal work, demanding schedules and workplace injuries that are sometimes treated with opioids.”

When he talked with CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 last year, Michael Bellaman, CEO and president of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), said the construction industry is five times as likely to lose a worker to death by suicide than from a safety-related job incident.

“You always hear the slogan, ‘safety first,’ and leading organizations do not compromise on safety, but we must also pay attention to suicide prevention,” Bellaman said during the interview.

Michelle Walker, who helped start the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention in 2015, said in an interview with CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 last year that although asking for help or reaching out to a coworker might not fit with the “macho” stoic nature of the average construction worker, they’re needed actions to combat suicide in the industry.

“Mental health is much more discussed as more people struggle with anxiety and depression due to the pandemic,” Walker said. “As it’s talked about more openly, we’re starting to see the light bulb go on for people who begin thinking about someone they work with and what might be going on with them. If they can make a personal connection to the issue, they start to see a need for this awareness and the adoption of suicide prevention practices.”

The Suicide Prevention Safety Stand-Down started as a regional initiative in OSHA’s offices in Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., with several task force members, including Builders Association, Associated General Contractors of Missouri, University of Kansas, University of Iowa, Washington University, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, local unions and several employers.

According to OSHA, more than 5,000 people participated in the 2020 Suicide Prevention Safety Stand-Down, and the organization said it encourages others to join the effort in 2021.

“Like many workplace fatalities, suicides can be prevented,” said OSHA Acting Regional Administrator Billie Kizer in Kansas City. “We encourage employers to use all available resources, familiarize themselves with the problem and learn to recognize the warning signs of depression. We also urge workers to seek help if they feel overwhelmed or overcome by a loss of hope.”

The need for a national conversation about suicide in construction grew even louder in the past year and a half with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting people’s mental health.

“The new challenge in the midst of a global health crisis is not just sending our workers home safely; it is sending them home healthier, happier, wealthier and better in terms of total human health,” Bellaman said.

For more information about the Suicide Prevention Safety Stand-Down week and National Suicide Prevention Month, watch an OSHA video on suicide prevention that Frederick recently shared with task force members and review OSHA’s mental health and crisis resources.

Additional information on suicide prevention in the construction industry includes the following:

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