By Jason George and Tim Worke
Via Minnesota Reformer
September 7, 2023
The top priority on a construction site is to send everyone home safely. But today, a serious threat is taking the lives of construction workers at an alarming rate.
The industry must take notice.
This week is Construction Suicide Prevention Week, and the problem is urgent.
Last year saw the highest number of suicides ever recorded in the U.S., with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating almost 50,000 Americans died by suicide. In the past two decades, the national suicide rate, or the number of suicides per 100,000 people, shot up about 35%.
Construction workers are at particularly high risk.
A CDC study found the construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, second only to the mining and extraction industry. According to the study, males in construction had a suicide rate of 45.3 deaths per 100,000 people — about twice the overall suicide rate for men in the U.S.
It’s no secret that construction is a fast-paced, deadline-driven industry. The seasonal nature of work and uncertainty about the next job compound the stress of long hours, frequent travel and separation from family.
As an industry, we can help reduce the strain on the hardworking men and women who build our roads and bridges, our homes and grocery stores, our schools and hospitals.
We can start by making commonsense changes to the way government agencies and other project owners design, bid and schedule projects.
Better planning with increased certainty in bid schedules would alleviate stress for contractors and their employees. Knowing when jobs will be available provides peace of mind, making it easier to focus on the job at hand.
Worker safety should be a higher priority when designing traffic flow around jobsites. Workers shouldn’t be constantly worried about danger from careless and impatient motorists. This may require more road closures, but putting these men and women in harm’s way unnecessarily threatens both their physical and mental health.
Reducing night shift work and expanding project timelines would also relieve some of the mental and physical strain on workers and may even reduce overall project costs.
In addition to these reforms, we can all normalize seeking help, both for mental illness and for the everyday stresses that pile up. Especially important is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which provides free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The construction industry can’t ignore the problem of suicide. We can’t continue squeezing workers and contractors, demanding they do things faster with fewer resources. That approach has a proven human cost, and our workers and their families are paying the price.
Jason George is business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. Tim Worke is CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.
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