One Construction Company is Getting Honest About Mental Health

One Construction Company is Getting Honest About Mental Health

In an industry where suicide rates are high, construction companies need to address mental health as part of their company culture and company safety programs. Here’s one company that’s doing it right.

Witnessing a family member or friend experience suicide, or attempted suicide, is traumatic and very scary. Witnessing a co-worker or employee struggle with suicidal thoughts is no different.

Unfortunately, the construction industry has high rates of suicide, and overall rates for suicide for general, working-age adults has been increasing. One NPR article recounts Michelle Brown’s story of when she lost a co-worker and friend to suicide and how she’s never been the same since.

Five years ago, a co-worker ended his workday and gave his personal cache of hand tools to his colleagues. His co-workers didn’t think much of it, but shortly afterwards they noticed how odd it was.

The man had gone home and killed himself. He was found after by his co-workers who went to check on him after feeling like something was up. However, it was too late.

“It was a huge sign, but we didn’t know that then,” said Brown. “We know it now.”

And that point is crucial—with high rates of suicide, noticing signs and certain behavior in people are essential and can even save a person’s life. Brown said it saved hers once.

The suicide of that construction worker for RK in 2014 was a pivotal event for the company and the way it approached safety and health. Its 1,500 employees would never be the same.

The worker’s death points to some glaring facts about suicide and the construction industry. Construction and mining (including oil drilling) have the highest suicide rates of all occupations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s not the only alarming fact: suicide rates for teens and young adults are very high (it is the second leading cause of death), but so are rates for working-age adults. In the US, adult-suicide rates are increasing by 34 percent to 17.3 suicides per 100,000 in 2015 from 12.9 in 2012.

After the worker’s death, RK co-owner Jon Kinning spent months meeting with industry leaders and suicide experts.

Thank goodness he did, because RK is now regarded as a model for suicide prevention in the construction industry. The 56-year-old company is committed to providing workers with mental health resources including 24-hour access to counseling services, lenient leave policies, and crisis training for managers, among other things.

While these programs are crucial to keeping workers safe, RK made one big and general change: it embraced lots and lots of open talk about mental health, which is one of the most important things you can do.

“It’s a crisis in our country. It’s a crisis in our business,” Kinning said. And it required rethinking the entire business.

“If somebody didn’t show up in the past, we’d be like, ‘You’ve got a job to do—get in here,’” he said. “We’ve just changed our tone and our culture. I talk about mental health nearly every time I have a group of employees.”

These changes have already proven helpful, too. Kinning said employees have already taken advantages of therapy and other benefits, and the company estimates it has averted about 15 suicides since 2014. And 15 lives saved is a lot better than none.

Other companies in construction (and other industries) with high suicides rates are following RK’s approach. However, the risks of suicide, especially within construction, are ongoing and still a major issue. Even RK is not immune to it yet.

What is contributing to these high rates of suicide in construction? Well, like a lot of topics surrounding mental health, there is not always a clear-cut answer, and there are likely many reasons. However, one major contributor is the fact that most construction workers are young and middle-aged men—the same population that is more likely to die by suicide.

In this population, substance use runs high, especially where opioids are prescribed for workplace injuries. Plus, many military vets work in construction, and many struggle with past trauma.

An Air Force veteran herself, Brown knows how factors like these can really affect mental health and workplace cultures. As RK superintendent, she remembers well when she noticed an emotional decline in one of her workers, a fellow vet she was close to. He would alternate between being unresponsive and being extremely agitated.

One morning, he didn’t show up for work, and he hadn’t called in sick. Brown knew something was up, and given her past experiences, she immediately suspected he was suicidal. When she finally reached him by phone, her suspicions were confirmed.

“Don’t hang up,” she pleaded as she drove to his house. When she got there, she found him drunk and with a firearm in hand.

She said this situation struck too close to home. “It took me back to a time in my life where, if somebody hadn’t reached out to me, then there’s a possibility I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I had no desire to be on this earth anymore. I didn’t think it was worth it. Why bother? And somebody took the time to notice my behavior and reach out to me.”

Brown soothed him with words that had helped her: “You’re loved. You’re needed.” She called a therapist and eased him into medical leave, as RK had trained her to do.

The man survived, and they remain close, even though he has since left RK.

Still, Brown says that over 31 years of working in construction, she has endured three co-worker suicides. Each case rocked everyone hard—and people were often afraid to talk about it. Now, things need to change.

RK is indeed leading change, though. It highlights mental health two or three times a week during what it calls “toolbox talks” when workers gather for staff announcements and to stretch.

Still, as much as RK spotlights mental health, it remains a difficult subject. Talking about it can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Some workers object to the constant focus, saying it raises unwelcome memories for them. But Kinning perseveres, telling them, “I think it’s more important for the greater good to talk about mental health issues.”

Being candid with other coworkers and sharing experiences—in a healthy and constructive setting—can lighten burdens for people and make them feel more at peace, and more likely to seek help if they need it.

The NPR article is no easy one to read. It highlights some pretty glaring realties about mental health, suicide rates, and the construction industry. But it also exemplifies what companies can do—really do—to help keep workers safe and healthy, and alive.

After all, there’s always more we can do.

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