By Randy Boss, CRA, CRM, MWCA, SHRM-SCP
DEATH BY SUICIDE—CONSTRUCTION WORKERS AT RISK
Employee suicide is an often overlooked workplace risk
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among the U.S. working population increased 34% between 2000 and 2016. Construction workers are at a higher risk of death by suicide than any other occupation, representing an alarming one third of all suicides in 2012.
“Increasing suicide rates in the U.S. are a concerning trend that represents a tragedy for families and communities and impacts the American workforce,” said Deb Houry, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Knowing who is at greater risk for suicide can help save lives through focused prevention efforts.”
In a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, it was found that injured workers are significantly more likely to die from suicide or opioid overdose. The research noted: “Improved workplace conditions, improved pain treatment, better treatment of substance use disorders, and treatment of post-injury depression may substantially reduce mortality consequent to workplace injuries.”
[M]any of the known contributing factors to suicide and many aspects of working in construction create a “perfect storm” of risk.
Why are construction workers at higher risk? Because many of the known contributing factors to suicide and many aspects of working in construction create a “perfect storm” of risk. Construction workers are viewed as tough, rugged guys who are fearless and sometimes reckless. Construction work is a high-pressure occupation where tight schedules, close margins, and the demand for high quality collide every day. The potential for or reality of failure can result in a sense of shame and humiliation.
Also, workers are exposed to physical strain and psychological trauma. Alcohol and substance abuse are prevalent. Workers may need to travel to remote job sites and spend significant time away from family and friends. Work can be seasonal, leading to lack of routine and increased isolation. Chronic pain results from years of hard physical labor in an industry that has the highest use of prescription opioids. Erratic work schedules cause sleep disruption.
Other issues are the stigma associated with mental illness, lack of access to mental health care, low use of employee assistance programs (EAPs), and seemingly unlimited access to pills and guns.
It’s time to change the words we use when describing death by suicide from “Joe Smith killed himself” to “Joe Smith committed suicide brought on by depression.” Why? For the same reason that we don’t say someone killed herself with cigarettes; instead we say she died of lung cancer caused by smoking.
As risk advisors, we can make the business community aware that we can provide health and safety programs that exceed the minimum standard of OSHA compliance and focus on not only physical safety but also mental health. We can encourage employers we work with to make an EAP available to employees. These programs are invaluable to a team member who is experiencing a mental health crisis or a family member in the same vulnerable situation.
We also can support the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which was established by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) with the goal of disseminating information and resources for suicide prevention and mental health promotion in construction.
Friends, family members, co-workers and managers can spot signs that someone may be considering suicide, such as:
- Increase in tardiness and absenteeism
- Decreased productivity and self-confidence
- Isolation from peers
- Agitation and conflicts with co-workers
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Decreased problem-solving ability
- Legal and illicit substance abuse
- Increased accidents and injuries
If you or someone you know is feeling depressed or suicidal, you are not alone. Others in our industry can understand and provide help and support. For urgent assistance, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) right away.
Employee suicide is a real and often overlooked workplace risk. As risk advisors we can encourage our clients to recognize and mitigate this risk and provide a safe and healthy workplace for their employees.
Randy Boss is a Certified Risk Architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, Michigan. As a Risk Architect, he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle market companies in the areas of safety, workers compensation, human resources, property/casualty, and benefits. He has over 40 years’ experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 37 years. He is the co-founder of emergeapps.com, a web app for agents to share with employers. Randy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.