Why Mental Health and Suicide Prevention is the Next Frontier in Construction Safety


Mental Health, Suicide, and Construction Image

Did you know that as recently as 2016, the construction industry had the highest number of deaths by suicide amongst all industries, and that it had the second highest rate of suicide?

Sadly, both are true. Mental health issues, including depression and suicide, are a very serious problem in the construction industry.

Here at Convergence Training, we've been friends with Cal Beyer for quite some time. Cal's the Director of Risk Management at Lakeside Industries in Issaquah, WA, but more to the point he's a tireless advocate on the issue of suicide in the construction industry. If you've attended safety conferences in the Pacific Northwest, you may have seen Cal out speaking on the topic.

Cal was nice enough to participate in the interview below in which he explains the scope of the problem and gives us all some tips for trying to deal more productively with it to help save lives and reduce suffering. Thanks to Cal for all of his efforts and for taking the time to share what he knows with us here.

Question: What’s the scope of the issue with suicide in the construction industry?

Cal Beyer: A 2016 study released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the construction industry as having the highest number of deaths due to suicide among all major industries. The CDC reported that the construction industry had the second highest rate of suicides (farming, fishing, and forestry was number one). The rate for construction was 53.5 per 100,000 employees, which is four times higher than for the general US population.

Worse yet, when combining the 5th highest industry of architects and engineers with 32.5 per suicides per 100,000, the Architecture-Engineering-Construction (AEC) industry has the highest rate of suicides. This rate of 85.5 suicides per 100,000 is six times higher than the general population as a whole.

Question: Why is suicide such a big concern in construction? Why this industry?

Cal Beyer: The construction workforce is at risk due to industry risk factors and demographic risk factors. With only approximately 3% of the current construction workforce female, construction remains a male-dominated industry. There is an “old school” mentality that permeates construction with its “tough gals and guys” culture. The industry continues to have a historically relative higher incidence of alcohol and substance use.

Related training tip: See our online substance abuse awareness training course.

The industry is considered high-pressure due to budget, schedule, quality, and safety performance goals. Construction workers frequently experience limited sleep and separation from families and friends due to the demanding work schedule and as a result of commuting to projects. End of project and/or seasonal furloughs can create financial stress for construction workers.

Related training tip: See our online stress management training course.

Plus, access to health care is a concern as well for hourly field employees who only get paid when they are working. So, many construction workers defer essential medical checkups. Due to heavy, manual labor and to workplace injuries, construction has been the industry with the highest incidence of prescription opioid use. Some employees report a sense of being trapped in a career without options, especially with the high percentage of layoffs and slow rehiring after the recession.

Question: What can we do to help prevent or reduce this problem?

Cal Beyer: Companies in all industries can talk about mental health and weave suicide prevention into their safety, health and wellness program. Talking about these topics breaks down the stigma associated with mental health matters. Starting the conversation is the hardest aspect of introducing suicide prevention into a company’s safety and health program. Once the conversation is sparked, a meaningful dialogue can occur where supervisors and employees learn how to respectfully address mental health as just another safety concern.

Question: What are signs that a construction worker may be struggling with suicidal thoughts that we should be looking for?

Cal Beyer: There are many potential warning signs that signal a person may be considering self-harm. According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, some of the major representative examples may include:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Seeking a way to kill oneself such as searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or of having no reason to live
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated or behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

Risk is perceived to be greater if multiple behaviors coexist at the same time or if the behavior is new or has recently increased. The risk is greater if warning sign behaviors are related to a painful event, loss or change, such as a breakup of a key relationship or the loss of a loved one.

Question: What should we do if we detect these signs in a coworker?

Respectfully asking a co-worker if they are ok is an acceptable first step. Do not be surprised if the seemingly struggling employee rejects the initial offer of help. Those affected by mental health disorders are used to handling matters on their own, so rejecting help is a natural coping skill or strategy. Letting that person know that you care and are available if they need a listening ear or helping hand goes a long way to building trust and empathy.

If your company has hung up posters or shared wallet cards from the Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline it will be easier to ask the struggling employee if they have contact information for these free, confidential, 24/7 resource support services. Providing the affected employee with information about the company’s Employee Assistance Program is another recommended support strategy. Communicating your concern confidentially to the Human Resources or Safety Departments is acceptable where a company has been incorporating mental health into safety, health and wellness programs.

Question: What else do people need to know about depression, anxiety, and suicide, both within the construction industry and in the society at large?

Cal Beyer: Based on studies, 25% of population will experience a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime. Unfortunately, less than 20% of people with a mental illness will seek help. Studies have shown a success rate of 80% of overcoming with early treatment. So, it is important to break the stigma associated with mental health concerns in order to help those who struggle or suffer in silence. This is one reason why workplace mental health programs are so important.

Question: I’ve heard you talk about this being both a “wellness” issue and also a “safety” issue. Could you please that in more detail?

Cal Beyer: Much progress has been made in the construction, oil/gas, and mining industries over the past two decades in breaking down “old school” attitudes and behaviors. Safety has evolved to be more holistic and focused on concepts like Safety 24/7 and Total Worker Health. Many companies have a wellness program and more and more companies are providing access to an Employee Assistance Program. Health and wellness is a great pathway to communicate with employees about mental health both on- and off-the-job.

Question: How can construction industry leaders learn more about mental health and suicide prevention?

Cal Beyer: In October 2016 my friends at the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA.org) launched the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP): www.preventconstructionsuicide.com. Over 65 construction associations, labor unions, and mental health service providers have joined the CIASP to create awareness and promote actions to address suicide prevention in their part of the construction industry.

Conclusion: Mental Health, Suicide, and the Construction Industry

We'd like to thank Cal for sharing his experiences on this difficult and important topic with us. If you get a chance to see Cal speaking on this issue, be sure to catch him.

We hope this interview with Cal helps raise some awareness about the issue, the risk factors, and signs and symptoms. If you're struggling with some of these issues, reach out for help; if you see someone who's struggling, try to help them.

Our friends at RedVector have additional information about mental health and drug/alcohol issues in construction at this article (including an infographic for you).

You might consider adding this issue to your health and safety program at work. Our online stress management and prevention course can be a positive addition to that.

In addition to this interview with Cal, please check out the additional interviews on workplace suicide prevention we've done since this one:

COVID-19, Suicide, Wellness & High-Risk Industries
Workplace Suicide Prevention Tips 


And please remember, if you're considering suicide yourself, reach out--we promise there are people who care and can help and that things can get better.

Cal's Biography:

Cal Beyer is the Director of Risk Management for Lakeside Industries in Issaquah, WA. Lakeside Industries is a third-generation family-owned hot mix asphalt production and paving contractor. Cal joined Lakeside in August 2014 and began weaving mental health and suicide prevention into the Safety 24/7 culture he was leading. He has been a volunteer leader with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention since its inception in 2010. He served as Co-Lead of the Workplace Task Force during 2015-2017 and since 2016 he has served on the Executive Committee. He was named a Top 25 Newsmaker of 2016 by Engineering News-Record for his work boosting suicide awareness in the construction industry.

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