By Zeke Smith
When you think about hazards, accidents, and deaths in the construction industry, your mind probably goes to the usual culprits: falling, struck-by or caught-in equipment, electrocutions, and more. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, research has discovered that death by suicide in the construction industry is six times higher than death due to site accidents.1 And, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, individuals working in the construction industry have one of the highest suicide rates compared to other industries and a suicide rate about four times higher than the general population.2
These startling statistics underscore the mental health crisis facing the construction industry. Stress and burnout are vitally important but are overlooked in terms of jobsite safety. There are extreme physical demands that can lead to drug use and abuse. Additionally, work hours can be long, creating a lot of time away from family and friends, without any real time to relax, reset, and refresh. If a worker is stressed, burnt out, or distracted, they are inherently less safe, causing jobsites to be more prone to incidents or injuries.
The construction industry is known to be male dominated. 89% of United States construction workers are male, with white males between 20-50 years old being the most prevalent demographic for successful suicides.3 Another demographic with a high suicide percentage within the construction industry is veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a recent study found that veterans are a high risk with almost 22 suicide per day.4
So how can construction leaders help? Historically, the construction worker does not talk about their mental health struggles. Leaders need to understand that mental health is a real concern and must create a culture within their organizations that welcomes conversations about mental health, stress, burnout, and other issues. A company should have resources such as daily toolbox talks, town halls, and performance coaching sessions as crucial components of their Health and Safety Programs. Some individuals may need more education and awareness resources, while others may need access to healthcare professionals and counseling services. Construction industry leaders need to look at themselves in the mirror and understand the kind of environments and culture they are promoting and do everything in their power to create a safe and open workplace for all their employees.
The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a great place to start. Their online resources are easy to implement and are very comprehensive for addressing the mental health crisis.
Many employees may not know where to start when addressing the mental health obstacles they are facing. Additionally, employees may feel the support they need is not available at work. Establishing mental health and wellness programs can have a huge impact on employee health and wellbeing, productivity, and job satisfaction.
If construction leaders observe any mental health concern within their organization, it’s highly recommended to reach out to a healthcare practitioner and/or insurance provider for additional resources and information. Rapid or sudden change in employee behavior could be a key indicator of mental health concerns, but specifically, tardiness, absenteeism, rapid and extreme mood swings are typically signs and issues that should be addressed.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s important that construction companies focus on mental health regularly, not just once or twice per year. As an industry, construction must recognize that better mental health means safer workers and better safety outcomes. Make physical and mental health a priority, and work with experienced medical experts if needed to achieve a healthy worksite culture, and together, we can work to reduce the number of suicides that occur in this industry.
Zeke Smith is the Director of People Operations for Satterfield & Pontikes Construction. Smith has spent 18 years in the people business, with 15 of those years within the engineering and construction industry. Smith currently chairs the Talent Practices/Human Resources Committee and is a member of the Board of Directors for Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Houston.
- National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2020. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dec. 16, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
- U.S. Department of Labor, Industry Leaders, Stakeholders Call on Employers, Workers to Combat Surge in Construction Worker Suicides. U.S. Department of Labor.
- Pearson, Chad. Burnout in Construction : Identifying & Solving for this Serious Syndrome. Construction Progress Coalition. https://www.constructionprogress.org/post/burnout-in-construction-identifying-solving-for-this-serious-syndrome
- Share of Male and Female Employees in the Construction Industry in the United States from 2002 to 2020. Statista. Jan. 19, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/434758/employment-within-us-construction-by-gender/
- National Veteran Suicide Data and Reporting. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/data.asp