Safety is something to be mindful of on a construction work site. That includes physical and mental safety. There are 7.8 million people employed in construction jobs in the U.S. As a result of a growing demand for residential housing, commercial development and critical infrastructure upgrades nationwide, the number of construction jobs is expected to continue increasing.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is resulting in a once-in-a-generation influx of $1.2 trillion in new spending — $550 billion of which is earmarked for infrastructure construction. This surge of money into the industry means there will be more work, but this will not come without problems.
Workers in the construction industry are at high risk of dealing with mental health issues, including substance abuse, addictions, depression and personality disorders. Construction has the second-highest rate of suicide among all industries in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, construction workers are 40% more likely to commit suicide than to perish in a fall or work-related injury. What’s more, drug use, such as opioid abuse, is twice as prevalent among construction workers as it is for the general population.
Not surprisingly, these concerns go largely unaddressed because the industry is cloaked in a culture of silence. Societal expectations are one of the main reasons mental health issues are so widespread. Construction is a male-dominated business where individuals are hesitant to ask for assistance because they don't want to appear weak or incapable of doing their jobs. Additionally, construction workers typically spend long hours away from home and their families. They also indulge in work that is mentally and physically exhausting, they deal with seasonal inactivity and lack of pay, and they face high-pressure, life-threatening situations daily.
No matter the stressors, there’s plenty of room for healing and seeing that construction crews feel mentally safe and protected. While the statistics may be alarming, companies can take steps to support their construction employees and contribute to positive on-site change.
Open and honest safe zones. The first step is to initiate a mental health conversation with someone who is showing signs of trouble. Mental health has negative connotations attached to it, often preventing people from seeking the help they require. Frightened of losing their jobs or being penalized for taking time off, many employees won’t take the time to go to doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions. Supervisors that encourage them to do so can help destigmatize mental health issues and make work sites safer over time. Companies can assist employees with mental health concerns by developing peer support groups, providing on-site mental health services, and training managers to respond swiftly when employees want help. Opening a trusting line of communication between front-line managers and employees allows individuals to be honest about their problems and feel comfortable coming forward to seek solutions.
Mental health first aid. Companies should educate their workforce on the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Mental health was once regarded as an off-limits topic. As a result, many employees can’t spot signs of anxiety, depression or thoughts of suicide. Encourage your employees to look for changes in co-workers’ personalities, attendance and performance on the job. When employees see something, they should feel comfortable saying something to help keep everyone safe at the work site. Seeing that employees have ready access to mental health resources, such as suicide hotlines, crisis text lines and other counseling, is a very important part of this step.
Toolbox talks. Raising awareness is one of the most effective techniques managers and business owners can use to help employees with mental health concerns. Every morning on job sites, as employees talk about safety and other issues, they can add conversations about mental health on the job. Take time to discuss mental health benefits like counseling available through employee assistance programs or company-sanctioned self-care apps and tools. Encourage supervisors to explain that assistance programs can be tailored to a person’s unique circumstances. For instance, it can be difficult to get back on your feet after sustaining a workplace injury. For veterans, the transition from working in the military to working on a construction site can have many challenges. Having the proper resources and being informed about them regularly can make all the difference.
The construction sector is thriving, and a greater emphasis on mental health could help it stay that way. Enhancements like those outlined here have the potential to change construction work sites, shifting them from a culture of hiding mental health issues to one that promotes healing and well-being.
Keeping workers safe — both mentally and physically — by helping them feel supported on construction work sites is important.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the U.S. The lifeline is available for everyone and is free and confidential: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).