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Suicide in Construction

A friend of mine is a carpenter. He says one day last year, on a lower floor of a 10-story structure in Kansas City, a carpenter gave away his tools to other workers. He made his way to the top floor. Then, he jumped to his death.

    

“All of us in construction, are under a lot of stress,” says my friend. “People drink too much. There’s substance abuse. And, I don’t know what to say, but this also happens.”

    

There is evidence—in the story above, in government statistics and from university researchers—that empathy is lacking on job sites today.

    

“You’ve hit a hot button,” says the president of a large AWCI member firm about my phoning to ask about suicide prevention.


Identifying a Problem

The government report, “Suicide Rates by Major Occupational Group—17 States, 2012 and 2015,” containing the latest available data, says “the largest percentage of male suicides occurred among those in the Construction and Extraction group.”

    

No other occupation was even close to construction’s suicide rates—15 percent of all on the job deaths in 2012, 16 percent in 2015.

    

Why is suicide a problem in construction?

    

“One word—empathy,” says E. Scott Geller, distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and principal at Safety Performance Solutions, Inc. “We lack empathy in politics right now for sure, and throughout our culture.”

    

On mental health, most workers, 64 percent, would rather interact with artificial-intelligence-based chatbots than they would with their managers, says a FastCompany article.

    

I spoke with the human resources director at an AWCI member contractor firm. The firm has 500 employees on the payroll.

    

“What’s your arrangement to help people with well-being problems?” I asked.

    

“We have toolbox meetings,” she said.

    

Uh, that’s it? There’s no arrangement to address potential suicide risk among employees? No.

    

True, the firm has not had any suicides among its employees. But, you’d think it would provide more than just toolbox talks.


Actively Caring for Others

Geller says people need to feel that they’re being actively cared for—that they have real choices, are viewed as competent, and feel part of a community.

    

Here’s how it works.

    

Create the perception of choice. Have an active safety suggestion box. Set it up through email or have actual boxes on your job sites. Then, read the suggestions. Respond to them. Someone feeling suicidal may have lost the perception that they have a choice in their workplace, Geller says.

    

Impart competence to your crews. “When we are competent at doing worthwhile work,” Geller says, “we are more likely to be self-motivated, feel satisfied about what we’re doing and feel good about what we’re doing.” So, recognize people. Thank people. Specify what a crew member did that was skillful. Giving gratitude and receiving gratitude builds competence.

    

Build a community. Use inclusive wording. “Guys, we (not you) have got to get this floor done today. How can we do it? How can I help?” Instead of saying, “We have a problem, here’s how we’ll fix it.” Turn it into a question: “We have a problem, how do you think we should fix it?” That one question gives the crews the perception of a choice, makes them feel competent and puts them in the context of a community.


Empathy Can Help

Safety training has traditionally been top down. Some supervisors tell people what to do. Some foremen give safety lectures and don’t let crews share their concerns. Empathy is sure to help.

    

The government’s report says “the etiology of suicide is multifactorial” and identifying the occupational factors that might play a role in suicide risk “is complicated.” But, besides professor Geller, the Centers for Disease Control also has suggestions about suicide prevention for companies, as do others.

    

The construction worker who committed suicide in Kansas City had something negative going on in his life, and he lacked a good support system. I say we can all support one another. I’m convinced that as an industry we can do much to prevent self-harm.

    

The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry is a stakeholder to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Visit https://preventconstructionsuicide.com to learn more about how you can raise awareness and help your employees.


Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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