Recently it was reported that in Western Australia an average of 33 people in the construction industry took their own lives every year. In one year alone there were over 600 suicide attempts with more than 100 leaving the person with a permanent disability. To put this in context the state only has a population of 2.5 million people. Now I couldn’t find similar statistics in the United States but did find that every year around 43,000 people kill themselves and that people in the construction and mining industries rank with the second highest suicide rate of 53 workers per 100,000 which means that in the United States;
for every 2,000 construction workers, 1 will kill themselves every year.
These are frightening statistics that very few talk about. Safety is usually taken seriously on our construction projects, yet suicides kill and permanently maim countless people every year.
Why are suicide rates so high?
There are very few studies to the reasons for high rates of suicide that I’ve seen, but my theories are:
1. Construction is a cyclical industry with times of little work. Many are employed for a particular project, then when their portion of work is finished they have to move on and find other work. This creates enormous stress knowing that you’ll soon be out of work and looking for another job. Who is going to look after the family then? Often construction workers sit at home with no work feeling worthless for weeks and even months.
2. Construction is very much a hire and fire industry with little continuity and low loyalty. Again this creates stress.
3. Of course being cyclical puts enormous pressure on management and company owners who have to be continually looking for new projects, wondering how they’ll pay wages, equipment instalments and office rentals. Submitting prices for projects can be very stressful – have you got the right price, have you forgotten something? And then the disappointment of losing one project after another. Even though I worked for a very successful construction company our project win rate was only 1 for every 10 projects we priced!
4. Daily we hear of clients not paying contractors, contractors not paying suppliers and subcontractors. Company owners have committed suicide when they’ve been unable to pay their employees because a client hasn’t paid them.
5. Frequently contractors become bankrupt, sometimes because of poor management, other times because of greed and thieving. The end of the day who suffers – the poor workers and suppliers who don’t get paid. The stress of not being paid what’s due to you can lead to suicide.
6. Construction workers often work long hours and on weekends. They barely see their families, and when they do there are often arguments about the long work hours. A stressful home life often leads to divorce, despair and even suicide.
7. Construction workers often work away from home for long periods. Again this can lead to marriage problems. But these times away from home can lead to loneliness, time to think dark thoughts and often ends in drink and drugs.
8. Most jobs on a construction project demand good health and some degree of physical strength. An injury, or even a sore back, can quickly end a career in construction. Fighting illness or pain daily just to keep working can be an enormous burden that can cause suicide.
9. Construction is very much a man’s World. You have to be seen to be tough. Any weakness is often pounced on by fellow workers. There is little sympathy.
10. Bullying is sometimes rife on some projects.
What can we do to get rid of this killer?
1. Awareness is important. Knowing about the problem means we are more likely to notice when someone’s mood changes. Awareness might also cause us to do things differently – maybe act in a more considerate way to our fellow workers.
2. It would be useful if governments and states helped make construction less cyclical – maybe scheduling their projects for the time when the construction industry is depressed. Doing this they’ll also get more for their Dollar since construction, material and equipment prices rise when there’s lots of work and falls when work is scarce.
3. Clients and contractors that don’t pay are killing the construction industry, but they are also literally responsible for the deaths of people in the industry. If someone’s delivered the project to the required quality pay them on time. Why should some benefit unfairly from others’ misery?
4. Try to minimise long hours and overtime on your projects. Workers deserve to spend time with their families. They deserve to be home on weekends. Everyone needs a rest.
5. Those that have to work far from home shouldn’t have to spend weeks away and then return only for infrequent rushed breaks.
6. Bullying should never be tolerated under any circumstances.
7. Project managers and supervisors must be aware of signs when things don’t seem right with a colleague or worker. Maybe they have mood swings, they are depressed. Take the time to talk to someone when they seem upset, quiet, moody or not their usual selves. Just being able to share problems with someone can often help.
8. Ensure counselling is available to workers. Contact details of councillors should be displayed on project notice boards.
9. Remember our employees aren’t machines – they need time off, they need time with their families.
10. Of course, equally important is to consider our own situations. Don’t take problems personally. Learn to reduce stress. Learn to talk about and share problems.
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