a construction worker thinking about mental health
By
Jerry Ouimet, President

We’ve all heard of the “hard hat” in construction. It’s been around for a long time. In fact, it’s more than a century old, stemming all the way back to World War I when Edward Bullard was tasked with bringing it back from the war in an attempt to reducer worker injury in construction. At that time, it was called the “hard boiled hat” because it was made with steamed canvas covered with black paint. Over the years, it eventually became the “hard hat” we still use to this day in construction.

The purpose of the hard hat has always been to help combat severe injuries and reduce the impact to construction workers’ brains from flying debris, things falling from overhead, workers falling and hitting their heads, and the plethora of other hazards on the jobsite. If you imagine a worksite 100 years ago, you can appreciate the need for protection from external objects.

Since that time, we have added vests, gloves, work boots, and eye protection to the workplace standard personal protection equipment (PPE). The focus has been on protecting the physical body of the worker. What we’ve seen over time, though, is that while the hard hat reduced injuries to the outside of the head, we haven’t really done anything to take care of what’s going on inside — stress, emotional/mental issues, wellbeing, and distractions — and this is terribly dangerous on a worksite.

The Crisis in the Construction Industry

Even before the current health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19, the construction industry has been in crisis. Here are a few startling statistics to illustrate the problem:

  • The suicide rate has surged 40 percent in the U.S. over less than two decades, with blue-collar workers — particularly mining, oilfield, construction, and auto-repair workers — at a significantly higher risk.
  • Researchers examined the suicide rates by profession for 20,975 people between the ages of 16 and 64. For both men and women, construction and “extraction” workers, mostly in the mining or oil and gas fields, had the highest suicide rates.
  • The total suicide rate among all men was 27.4 individuals per 100,000 people, but the rate among those in the construction fieldwas 49.4 per 100,000.

This is shocking and gut-wrenching.

On top of this, an undeniable cause of the high suicide rate is the stigma surrounding mental health in the industry, and with men generally.

Why is this?

It’s the stereotype factor and the need for men to feel “tough.” They may shame themselves for experiencing anxiety, distress, depressive, and suicidal feelings, because it contradicts the idea ingrained in them that males should not be affected by their emotions.

What Can We Do to Address These Mental Health Issues?

In 1971, the federal government formed OSHA to create compliance and safety rules/laws for the industry. After creating a catalog of rules, standards, and training, the improvements we saw in reducing serious injuries and deaths have not continued.

I think it’s because we’re missing a key component.

We need to continue to evolve the historic approach to safety from the early focus on compliance, to leadership commitment, culture, and now caring. I don’t mean to suggest people have not cared about safety. What I mean is that the caring for the entire worker has to be the priority to improve beyond where we are now.

I think when most people think of risk hazards in the construction industry, they think of the operational hazards, and as an industry, we have improved greatly in identifying the approach to working from heights and how to work around unique project hazards. The current pace and stress of the world we live in has created another hazard, and that is the hazard from not being fully present mentally in a dangerous work zone. This new hazard is real, and it is the hazard of distraction caused by mental and emotional stressors. Until we address these components, we’ll continue to lose people to suicides and serious, even fatal, injuries.

So, what can we do to improve the level of caring we have for the workers, and knowing our population is in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated, how do we get engaged, motivated workers to follow our intentional processes to stay safe?

1. Start the Conversation

As leaders of a company and in the industry, we first have to start the conversation. Knowing the industry is largely male and isn’t used to being vulnerable, we have to open those doors.

If workers can’t raise their hand to say they don’t feel safe or they’re having emotional/mental health issues, we’ll never get there.

A study of oil rig workers conducted back in 2016 found that if workers feel a strong sense of belonging and belief that they’re worthy, they’ll be more likely to embrace vulnerability…even in construction. The study concluded that you cannot be safe if you cannot be vulnerable. These are not easy conversations to start, but they are critical to making progress.

2. Don’t Tackle the Issue Alone

We are committed to bringing energy and resources to this industry crisis. I was honored to be asked to serve as a Trustee for the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), which has become the industry leader in building awareness and resources to respond to this crisis.

In addition, CSDZ recently brought onboard Cal Beyer to “help us, help you” remove the stigma of emotional and mental health from the construction industry. Cal has over 30 years of safety, insurance, and risk management experience, with 24 of those years serving the construction industry. Prior to joining CSDZ, he was the director of risk management for Lakeside Industries in Issaquah, WA. At Lakeside, Beyer catalyzed the construction industry mental health and suicide prevention movement.

We feel that adding Cal to our team is an integral step in our mission to curtail the mental health crisis in the construction industry. We believe solving this crisis is essential to building a safe and sustainable construction industry.

To help you get to know Cal and our mission to “make it OK to not be OK,” we’ll be having a series of blogs from him coming up. Be on the lookout for the “The Invisible Construction Crisis” 4-part series every Wednesday beginning June 3.

And, in the meantime (or at any time, for that matter), don’t hesitate to reach out to CSDZ or the CIASP. We’d love to talk with you about this topic and begin moving the construction industry in the direction of physical AND emotional/mental wellbeing.