Editor’s Note: This commentary was originally published in theHuddle, CBO’s weekly newsletter covering news from around the construction industry. Scroll down for an online-exclusive Q&A with CBO and Greg Sizemore on his top advice for starting a suicide prevention program in your company.
Settle in for some guest commentary on a serious topic: suicide prevention. Greg Sizemore is the vice president of health, safety, education and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and a trustee of the alliance, and was recently appointed to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's (OSHA) Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health. Read Sizemore’s commentary on suicide rates and prevention efforts in the construction industry below, as well as a few of his answers to questions from the CBO team on how you can start a program in your company.
Construction’s New Safety Imperative: Suicide Prevention
By Greg Sizemore
Since the invention of hard hats in 1919 to the founding of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in 1971 and the recent use of drones to conduct safety inspections, leaders in the merit shop construction industry have been working for decades to identify, implement and fine-tune best-in-class jobsite safety practices. We are fortunate to have made significant progress in pursuit of zero-incident construction jobsites over the last few decades.
In today’s construction industry, safety is paramount. And at ABC, a national construction association representing more than 21,000 members, we believe that it is our responsibility to ensure all construction workers go home in the same—or better—condition than when they arrived on the jobsite.
While the number of construction jobsite fatalities due to accidents has been trending downward over the decades, deaths by suicide among construction workers have increased. Men in the construction and extraction industry had the highest rate of suicide among all occupational groups in the United States in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statistically, construction employees are at a higher risk because men, who make up 91% of the construction workforce, are more likely to die by suicide. In addition, the industry employs a large population of veterans, who are at an 1.5 times greater risk for suicide compared to non-veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
This is a public health crisis, and we must do better for our workforce and their families.
In 2016, the Construction Financial Management Association established the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Now counting more than 75 industry organizations as members, including ABC, we are united in our dedication to reducing suicide risk across the construction industry, equipping companies to better address mental health issues and promoting the safety and well-being of construction’s most important asset—our people.
Americans spend many hours at the workplace each week, making it a vital touchpoint for providing access to mental health resources for working-age adults. In fact, the Surgeon General’s 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention specifically targets employers as critical stakeholders in the prevention of suicide. Across the construction sector, we must rise to meet this challenge by incorporating mental health and wellness as core business values.
To start, we need to institute comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention polices, including employee assistance and treatment programs and crisis intervention education. We also need to shatter the stigma around mental health problems and put in place mental health safety measures with the same steadfastness that we do for physical health and safety.
We also need to focus on access. Contractors can take several steps to ensure their workers have the information and resources they need to ask for and receive help: promote employee assistance programs and other mental health services; improve mental health literacy by educating workers about psychological safety in the same way we do physical safety; provide wellness workshops; and post resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number.
There is emotional work, too: We must stop the societal shame surrounding mental health issues, especially in a male-dominated, physical industry such as construction. We need to foster a caring environment that includes an open-door policy and strong interpersonal communication. A simple “how are you doing?” can be a lifeline to someone who is struggling. We also need to educate supervisors to be able to identify and address signs of mental distress, to have difficult conversations and then to follow up.
Simply put, suicide prevention is incumbent on all of us—especially considering the U.S. suicide rate among working adults increased 34% from 2000 to 2016. It is our responsibility not just on construction jobsites, but also in our schools and workplaces, and with our families, friends and communities. If we choose to lead, if we choose to commit and if we choose to transform, together we will reach the only acceptable number of construction workers dying by suicide: zero.
CBO: Do you have any advice for a specific person on staff who should be a champion for a suicide prevention and/or employee assistance program?
GS: There needs to be a top-down, bottom-up approach to suicide prevention in the construction industry. Otherwise, it will simply be another human resource program without real leadership commitment. Executives need to not only champion mental health and wellness for all employees, but also ensure there is adequate funding and resources, including both time and personnel.
Leadership also needs to have an open and honest attitude about a sensitive topic that, in some instances, can be very uncomfortable to speak about or acknowledge. But most importantly, companies need to create conditions that will allow employees who are struggling to seek help if they feel like they need help.
CBO: What should employers focus on first when starting a program?
GS: The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention was formed in 2016 to provide information and resources for suicide prevention and mental health promotion in our industry, as well as raise awareness about how suicide is disproportionately affecting construction workers.
Resources include a needs analysis and integration checklist designed to help construction companies evaluate how they address mental health—which is an essential first step—and initial ways to incorporation mental health and wellness information into the workplace. Suicide prevention and readiness must include: leadership commitment to building a caring culture; established resources in place for employees dealing with mental health issues or a personal crisis; readiness of management to assist suicidal employees; building protective factors, such as educating supervisors about warning signs; and crisis response procedures.
CBO: Do you have an example of a company who is doing this right?
GS: Michelle Walker, the chair of the alliance and the vice president of finance and administration at SSC Underground in Phoenix, Arizona, and her leadership saw the need to incorporate mental health and wellness into their employee benefits and company culture more than 3 years ago. They have baked mental health and wellness into all interactions with employees—such as on-boarding and safety meetings—to build comfort and trust and ensure all employees understand how to access mental health benefits and resources.
The company has also added mental health and suicide risk into its performance management to address any underlying issues, rather than just focusing on performance from a disciplinarian standpoint. Because of this policy, SSC Underground has been able to identify employees experiencing mental health issues and connect those people to care, rather than just dismissing them. SSC Underground has strived to create a culture where employees can ask for help for themselves or others and know they will not just be accommodated but receive the necessary care.
Learn more at preventconstructionsuicide.com.