Few people were aware September was suicide prevention and awareness month. Yet, sadly, many of us have lost friends and loved ones who have taken their own lives. In 2022, suicides reached a record high, with 49,449 people committing suicide, or 5.7 suicides every hour. Meanwhile, available records show homicides rose to 26,031 in 2021, or 3 homicides every hour. Shocking as it may seem, on the average twice as many people kill themselves than are murdered, every hour of every day on an annual basis.
But the topic of suicide seldom appears in the same sentence as the topic of construction. At first blush, the two topics appear unrelated. Media depicts construction workers as tough, rugged individuals. Men who wear hard hats, steel toed shoes, and leather tool belts. Men who love risk and drive pick-up trucks. Far too often, public perception mimics media depiction. Construction workers are viewed by the public as macho-he-men. Men who hunt and fish on weekends. Men who live large and cheat death. Neither media nor the public view construction workers as suicidal.
But a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC shows reality defies perception. A CDC study found the suicide rate for construction workers is the second highest of all industries. According to the CDC, 53.3 construction workers out of every 100,000 workers commit suicide. In stark contrast, the average suicide rate in the United States is just 12.93 individuals per 100,000 people. The suicide rate amongst construction workers is 4+ times greater than the national average.
Studies show one reason may lie in the composition of the workforce. Construction is a male dominated industry. 9 out of every 10 construction workers are men. National studies show men die from suicide 3.5 times more than women. 6.5 of every 10 construction workers are white. Suicide rates are highest amongst middle aged individuals – white men in particular. 1.5 of every 10 construction workers are veterans. Veterans are 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Perhaps most alarming of all, studies indicate for every suicide, there are as many as 25 attempts at suicide. Yet, despite these unsuccessful attempts, suicide still ranks within the top 10 causes of death in the United States.
In addition to a white male dominated workforce, studies identify multiple other factors contributing to suicide, all common to the construction industry. Such factors include:
- Shift work systems
- Stressful schedule driven work
- Physically demanding work
- Risk taking work environment
- Ready access to lethal means
- Frequent absences from friends and family
- Economic insecurity due to job seasonality
- Irregular and long working hours
- Frequent changes in coworkers and tasks
- Hectic travel schedules
Various combinations of these factors create high psychological demands and stress upon workers. When left untreated, such stress often leads to substance abuse to self-medicate physical, psychiatric, or emotional pain. Self-medication is common amongst macho-he-men and serves to exacerbate suicide amongst the construction workforce.
The construction industry is facing a suicide epidemic. Construction workers are approximately 5 times more likely to die from suicide than work related injuries. Such statistics have drawn national attention. In addition to the CDC, multiple government agencies and trade groups are now focusing upon suicide prevention in the construction industry. Most predict the construction work force must undergo a cultural change for suicide prevention to be successful. Changes include better communication, overcoming resistance to seeking help, and recognition of the problem. Unless and until change occurs, the construction industry cannot overcome the the growing need for skilled workers occurring alongside a shrinking workforce, [See “When Will the U.S. get Serious About the Need for Education in the Skilled Construction Trades”, posted 7/12/23].