Perspectives

Why we should make suicide a construction site safety issue

Image by Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
Two years ago, I took part in a construction leadership workshop on using culture to get better business outcomes. At one point, the moderator brought up the topic of creating a “safety culture.” Some of the large general contractors in the room noted how they’ve used culture to change behaviours, such as ensuring workers adhere to jobsite safety protocols.

No one mentioned what I saw as the elephant in the room – mental health and suicide awareness as a part of safety. Construction has the highest rate of male suicide among American workers, and the rates of suicide rose by 22% from 2012 to 2015. Compared to other industries, construction has the second highest suicide rate.

Sitting next to me in this workshop was Leslee Mallinson, vice president of brand and communications at Balfour Beatty, a multi-national infrastructure and construction group with more than 26,000 employees. As the conversation went on, I leaned over and asked if she noticed the same elephant. Turns out, she did. We talked further, and my conversation with Mallinson had convinced me of the sector’s need to elevate awareness.

There are several reasons why suicide awareness is often overlooked, including the stigma of mental health, the lack of training on warning signs and the inability to self-identify stressors. But there is also help and hope for construction professionals. So how can we help change perceptions to reduce suicide statistics in the industry?

Industry leaders must speak about mental health in the context of safety. Give both the attention they deserve and, in the process, the shame that’s often associated with acknowledging emotions is transformed into a strength.

For instance, Balfour Beatty launched a global suicide awareness campaign, highlighting how mental wellness must be included as an aspect of our safety culture. If we can ensure the conversation of safety includes mental health, the construction industry will better preserve the health of workers and do a better job of attracting and retaining the talent it needs.

Increasing education on wellness is another way to reverse the trend. Leaders can use free resources to help them navigate these conversations. Groups like CPWR, a global leader in construction health and safety research, provide actionable steps for contractors to mitigate day-to-day risks in their Toolbox Talks.

The non-profit Construction Progress Coalition offers monthly, virtual round table discussions on mental health in construction. At Procore, we created the Procore Safety Qualified course on identifying stressors, bringing the right mindset to the jobsite and the cultural change that needs to happen to prioritise safety as well as mental health.

Fortunately, traditional perspectives are changing. I’m seeing that firsthand through my social impact work at Procore.org and by safety advocates as a part of the industry’s advancement. Firms are now adding training about conflict resolution and symptoms of suicidal behavior, extending the culture of safety to include both the body and the mind.

With the strains of the pandemic and an unprecedented labor shortage, leaders must consider and continue to pursue a people-first approach to their company culture in order to make construction more sustainable. Ultimately, we have the opportunity to improve the quality of life for the people who build the places we learn, heal, work and live. And in the process, we can transform the image of construction.

  • Sasha Reed is the Director of Industry Advancement at Procore.org, the social impact arm of Procore that works to advance the construction industry through advocacy, education, and technology.

Image: Image by Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

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