Hard Hats Aren’t Enough

Statistics reveal concerns for the construction industry.

Consider this: The private construction industry experienced over 1,000 work fatalities in 2018. That was the highest number of deaths since 2007 and accounted for 20% of workplace fatalities overall in an industry that only employs 6% of the U.S. workforce.

Now consider this: The industry also lays claim to the highest suicide rate of any occupational category tracked by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 20% of men who died by suicide in the U.S. in 2019 were employed in the construction/extraction industry. And yet, this industry only makes up 6% of the national workforce.

Those statistics led attorney Jodie McDougal to write a piece on mental health issues in the construction industry for the Davis Brown Law Firm blog. Her initial motivation, she says, was simply to share information with her clients.

“As I read more about this issue and what the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is doing, I wanted to make sure my clients were aware of these issues,” she explains.

The more she read, the more she realized this was something the entire industry, locally as well as nationally, needed to address. “It’s not just about making sure the work environment is safe,” she explains. “It’s making sure employers are taking care of their employees, and that includes their mental health.”

The CDC shares this statistic as well: The #1 tool in preventing suicide is “promoting help-seeking.” Creating a culture that doesn’t stigmatize mental health issues will do more to change these statistics than any other effort, according to industry experts.

David Jaffe, Vice President of Construction Liability for NAHB, says, “It’s been noted by Bryan Kohl of MindWise Innovations that ‘for decades, we’ve been focused on what happens outside the hard hat. It’s time to pay attention to what’s happening inside the hard hat.’”

Although last year’s pandemic with its ancillary social isolation and record-breaking construction activity may have had some effect on mental health statistics, this is not a new concern. McDougal writes, “Per a CDC report, the construction and extraction occupational group has had the highest male suicide rate out of all major occupation groups multiple times within the last 10 years. And more construction workers die by suicide each day than all other workplace-related fatalities combined.”

Numerous factors come into play in making this industry so highly vulnerable to mental health issues: the volatility of the market and its attendant job insecurities, a culture of stoicism that values self-reliance and toughness, a lack of community resulting from transient jobs and short-term contracts, and the general demographics of the average construction industry worker.

Add to those the unprecedented situation of the past 12 months—a 58% increase in home remodeling inquiries, a 5% increase in housing starts nationally, soaring demand for single-family homes as a result of low interest rates, all coupled with the ongoing struggle to find skilled workers and to obtain materials amid a national economic shutdown.

Jaffe says, “Cal Beyer gave a presentation to an NAHB committee and put it like this: Skilled workers also tend to be perfectionists, a trait important to successful work performance. But when combined with tight deadlines and a physically demanding work environment, it can lead to escalating stress.”

McDougal says, “So many factors in this industry can increase the risks—the long hours, the stigma associated with asking for help, the emphasis on working hard, and just pushing through pain. It’s been a silent issue in the construction industry.”

NAHB had previously addressed some of these factors in its multiyear initiative to combat the opioid epidemic and its effect on the home building industry. This past year the organization launched a new mental health effort, focusing on mental well-being in the home building industry.

“Mental well-being can be a somewhat vague term,” Jaffe says. “What we are really talking about is mental health as defined by mentalhealth.gov: our emotional, psychological, and social well-being… that helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”

The program seeks to improve awareness, facilitate discussion, advocate for wellness on the jobsite and workplace, and destigmatize mental health and addiction so employees feel safe seeking help. “NAHB wants to take a leadership position with this issue moving forward,” Jaffe says. “Recent research suggests that industry associations have been overlooked as an agent for change.”

Although it can be difficult to track the results of programs like the NAHB’s Mental Health Initiative, the organization plans to track views on the resources page, media reports, and educational programs conducted with its resources. “Ultimately, the success of an initiative like this will depend on the participation by our state and local associations who have much more frequent contact with the members and a way to directly engage with them,” says Jaffe.

Jay Iverson, Executive Director of the Home Builders Association of Iowa (HBAI), says the group has not addressed this specifically at the state level. Locally, the Greater Des Moines HBA is just beginning to look into ways the association can take an active role.

“The national initiative is a fairly recent program,” says Dan Knoup, Executive Director of the Des Moines group, “so we don’t have a lot in the works yet locally. It’s definitely an issue that’s on everyone’s mind, from drug addiction to mental health concerns, so we want to do whatever we can to help our members get the resources they need.”

McDougal says, “Every employer needs to address these issues in a way that best suits their industry and their specific business. We just want to help with that awareness—awareness of the issue and awareness of the resources that are available to them.”

She says that although there are legal ramifications for employers regarding workplace safety, the real concern is for the individuals involved. “Caring for employees, in every respect, is good for business, too. Mental health issues, as well as associated behavior problems including alcoholism, have a direct impact not only on the employees suffering from those issues but also on their employers by leading to increased absenteeism, high turnover, lost productivity, and workplace injuries.”

One final statistic to consider: 100% of those who seek help are aware of their need. That’s what this initiative is all about. After all, you can’t change what you don’t know about.

The Right Tools for the Job

These resources and articles can help you understand the issues surrounding mental well-being and the workplace, as well as what various associations are offering to assist employers and workers in creating an environment where everyone is safe.

Further Reading:

Learn More.

The NAHB offers an anonymous, free screening tool for anyone struggling with mental well-being issues. Check out: screening.mentalhealthscreening.org/NAHB