OSHA’s “Fatal Four” in the construction industry are widely known: falls, being struck by objects, electrocutions and being caught in/between objects.
However, according to the CDC, there is an even bigger killer in the industry than all four of the “Fatal Four” put together, and it is finally gaining more attention.
Each year, more than five times as many workers die by suicide than all other job fatalities put together.
Mental health issues in the industry are widely acknowledged. Alcoholism and drug abuse (prescription & non-prescription) are very common and we will discuss that in more depth below.
There is also a culture in the industry of masculine toughness that can be difficult to constantly live up to. Many workers are ex-vets and accustomed to “being the hero” for everyone else, while not wanting to complain themselves.
“When you think of people showing strength, determination and grit, all of those great character traits that get the job done,” says Michelle Walker, vice president of operations at SSC Underground, a Phoenix-based underground construction and consulting company. “Those same traits are what can set somebody up for being at risk of suicide if they’re going through something and not asking for help.” *
The job itself is physically and mentally challenging. Periods of extreme work, sometimes 80 hours/week, means that family and friends are left behind, and the comfort of those bonds is lost.
Financial issues are a major contributor to stress in the industry. Those periods of extreme work can be followed by long or unpredictable periods of unemployment. When will the next job come in? How can I pay rent? How much savings will I have left by the time I start working again?
The ups and downs would be hard for anyone to deal with.
Perception about the job also plays a role in creating stress. Society’s belief that work in construction is a low-skill or low-quality job contributes to low self-esteem. Worker’s lack of control on the job also leads to low self-esteem.
Many people in the industry are working hard to address those issues by changing society’s misconceptions and giving workers more of a voice, and more control of their work.
Drugs and Alcohol
It’s a widely held misconception that drugs and alcohol are really only a problem for unskilled or entry-level workers. In fact, it is all throughout the industry, including management.
Citing a data bulletin released by CPWR in January 2023, Thomas says there were over 14,000 overdose deaths in construction in 2020 with no specific indication of intent and an untold number of deaths from the consequences of addiction. *
Studies show that employees in the industry are almost twice as likely to have a substance abuse disorder than the national average. The national average is 7.5% but among construction workers, it is 12%.
– and Injuries
Physical injury and pain are basically daily occurrences in construction. Feeling the need to work while in pain and fear of being laid off, add to the stress of dealing with the actual injury. Not being able to work while recovering from an injury can also lead to depression.
Injury is what has leads many workers down the path of opioid addiction. Taking a prescription drug to recover from injury can lead to using it simply to feel less pain from daily work. Be sure to read our post on opioid use if you haven’t already: Construction Workers Opioid Addiction Twice The National Average
Help is Available
If you are experiencing a suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress, call or text “988” to connect to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, – a national network of more than 200 crisis centers providing 24/7 confidential support from mental health professionals. Veterans can press “1” after dialing 988 to connect directly to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline, which also serves active service members, National Guard and Reserve members, and those who support them. For texts, veterans should text the Veterans Crisis Lifeline short code: 838255.