September 2020 Vol. 75 No. 9

Features

Suicide Serious Issue for Construction Industry

Jeff Griffin | Senior Editor

Every day in the United States, it’s likely that 130 or more people will purposely kill themselves. That’s a reasonable estimate made by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For the record, the CDC data documents that 48,344 Americans died by suicide in 2018 (the latest year complete records are available). That year, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for persons between ages 35 and 54. Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Over the past decade, the number of suicide deaths has steadily increased.

Classifying suicide as a preventable health issue, numerous statistics are available to study the causes and motivations that bring people to the point of destroying themselves. One consideration is occupations of suicide victims.

It may surprise some that CDC statistics place construction as the vocation with the highest rate of suicides across all occupational groups, said Michelle Walker, chairperson, Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP).

To combat this health and safety issue, contractors, unions, associations, industry service providers and project owners must work together to stand up for suicide prevention, said Walker, who is vice president of finance and administration at SSC Underground, Phoenix, Ariz.

CIASP’s stated goals include increasing awareness about the risk of suicide within the construction industry and to develop suicide prevention resources and tools to create a zero-suicide industry.

“We want to help enable contractors and other organizations to address mental health and suicide prevention as a health and safety priority,” said Walker.

Toward that end, the association offers resources to make construction management and workforce aware of the suicide problem and commit to addressing it in order to reduce suicides in the industry.

CIASP update

Underground Construction magazine interviewed Walker for an update on CIASP’s programs.

Underground Construction (UC): How is CIASP raising suicide awareness within the construction industry?

Michelle Walker (MW): We are constantly seeking opportunities to get in front of industry leaders through articles such as this, construction conference sessions, webinars and social media to share these statistics and provide them with the tools and resources they need to tackle this issue in their own organizations.

UC: What specific programs are in place now?

MW: I believe that the most powerful tool we have is our Needs Analysis & Integration Checklist that walks construction leaders through the various ways to create a comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention program in their workplace. In addition, we have templates to print toolbox talks, posters, wallet cards and hardhat stickers to share with construction crews and post on job sites to start building awareness of the importance of paying attention to mental and emotional wellbeing and safety in addition to physical safety. All of these tools are available at no cost on our website.

UC: What training is available and how is it conducted?

MW: We have partnered with LivingWorks to offer its START training program. This is an online program that takes 60 to 90 minutes to complete and allows participants to walk through different scenarios with people at risk of suicide to teach about the warning signs and how to address and connect someone in need with care. It is a powerful and easily accessible program that is appropriate for everyone in the industry to use.

UC: What has been the construction industry response to these programs and willingness to initiate training?

MW: Once construction people get past the disbelief that the industry is so at risk for suicide and they learn the industry-specific risk factors, most seem to understand quite quickly that this is something that they must address. The advantage that our industry has its high focus and priority on safety, and many steps of integrating a suicide prevention program can be woven into these existing safety measures.

UC: Is it possible to know whether the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting suicides? Is CIASP addressing the pandemic?

MW: Some states have tracked and noted an increase in suicides since the pandemic started and it would certainly seem logical that there would be. The uncertainty, social isolation, and financial and family strains brought on could certainly all be contributing factors to an increase in suicides.

One definite area of concern is a documented increase in opioid overdoses and deaths, which is one area of correlation with suicides. Another concern has been access to addiction recovery programs with the lack of in-person options available.

The CIASP immediately created a COVID-19-specific resources page on our website to equip employers with tools and resources to address the mental health, suicide and substance abuse concerns, and impacts of the pandemic with their workforce. We continue to update this as new material becomes available.

UC: How are CIASP programs financed?

MW:We are completely financed by generous donations from contractors, unions, associations and individuals. Some associations have made us the recipient of their fundraising events. We are thankful for the financial support we’ve received so far and encourage those who are able to donate so that we can continue to reach our entire industry with quality, free resources to remove any cost barrier to adopting a suicide prevention program.

UC: Are there indications the association’s efforts are achieving positive results?

MW: Numbers are hard to track because the reporting around suicides is tricky. However, there are signs that we are making progress. We continue to add stakeholders – companies and organizations who have taken the pledge to stand up for suicide prevention. We get new registrants consistently taking the LivingWorks training. The industry is definitely starting to get the message and we are being asked now to provide articles and presentations, whereas at the beginning, we were having to hunt down opportunities. So, although we have a long way to go, I believe we have made tremendous headway in the less than five years that we’ve been working on this.

UC: What are the next steps for CIASP?

MW: We continue to work on creating impactful resources for contractors to use to get the message out to their employees. Social media is also a focus right now – with no in-person events and conferences to share the message at, it is an important tool to build awareness and share resources. Some of our leadership is involved at the national level with OSHA and ACCSH, and we look forward to when mental health and suicide prevention are considered safety topics by those types of regulatory agencies.

UC: Closing comments?

MW: Thank you for being a part of the solution by sharing the message on the importance of addressing suicide in construction. I would encourage anyone reading this to go to our website and take the pledge to STAND Up for suicide prevention, access the resources, sign up for the training and, if able, make a donation to help fund our efforts. •

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