It was almost business as usual at the Lakeside Industries Leadership Conference at the Semiahmoo Resort: Lively chatter about asphalt mix designs and contract bids, while checking weather apps to see if rain would thwart a highway project deadline.
Then Mike Lee, president of this third-generation family-owned hot mix asphalt producer and paving contractor, kicked off the March 15 keynote session with a bombshell: “It turns out that in the construction industry, death by suicide is quite common.”
It was a prelude to Forefront co-founder Jennifer Stuber’s keynote address, “What construction supervisors need to know about mental health and suicide prevention,” to this Issaquah, WA-based company that is at the epicenter of redefining safety culture to include both mental and physical health.
A few hands crept up. But individually, many – from traffic control supervisors to plant/crusher foremen – had already felt suicide’s devastating impact.
Last summer, they lost an employee of Bayview Transit Mix (an affiliated company based in Seaside, OR). His suicide reflects a national trend: About a month later, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a grim report about construction suicides.
Among those who build our highways, airfields, and skyscrapers, 53 out of 100,000 die by suicide – a rate that practically quadruples the national average of 13.6/100,000.
“(Suicide prevention) is a leadership issue,” Lee added, encouraging employees to talk freely about the topic during the 2.5-day conference. “As a company, we need to become more conscious of this and get tools so we can constructively handle these situations, because there are people that work for us who are suffering right now.”
Inroads into workplace mental health
The keynote addressed the 800-pound elephant in the room: The stress, long work trips away from family, project seasonality, male-dominated demographic, high opioid use due to chronic pain from physical labor, and a culture of fearlessness that all create a perfect storm for construction’s suicide problem.
No matter which profession, suicide sends shock waves through the workplace. When Stuber’s husband died by suicide in 2011, his law firm colleagues were left reeling.
“This is a tragic story, but it has a bittersweet ending that’s still being written,” Stuber said. “I see you all as becoming part of this story and a bigger social movement that is happening around suicide prevention in our region.”
Giving a brief overview of Forefront’s LEARN™ training – Look for warning signs, Emphasize and listen, Ask directly, Remove the means, and Next level of care – Stuber noted workplace safety procedures and observant supervisors can play a role in helping prevent suicide.
This includes addressing the fact that four out of five firearm deaths are suicides, and making suicide prevention training as commonplace as fire drills and active shooter drills.
“A key message here is about safety,” she said, noting Lakeside Industries’ pioneering role in construction suicide prevention as well as budding partnership with Forefront. “We’ve had some amazing collaborations – with the NRA, the Second Amendment Foundation, gun dealers across our state, and now, the construction industry.”
Suicide’s ripple effect at Lakeside Industries
Lakeside Industries has recently become an industry leader in the national movement to redefine suicide prevention as the next frontier in safety.
Employees are now speaking out about why suicide is no longer an issue that workplaces can ignore. One is Mike Curtis, a manager at Bayview Transit Mix (an affiliation of Lakeside Industries).
“Everybody thinks that suicide is something that always happens to ‘somebody else’,” said Curtis.
When that “somebody else” was a crew member, a tidal wave of emotions hit him and his crew: “First, we couldn’t believe he was gone. Secondly, we couldn’t believe it was a suicide. Thirdly, we couldn’t believe no one even saw this coming at all.”
“One of the things that went through my mind is: Who goes out and stands in that man’s place – and how do they feel? How does the family feel?” said Curtis, who also visited his deceased employee’s widow and family.
It was only when he held the death certificate in his hands when it began to feel real.
When Lakeside Industries hired risk management director Calvin (Cal) Beyer a few years ago, Shute noticed suicide prevention posters and hotline cards popping up in break rooms, asphalt plants, and offices.
“Everyone’s thinking: ‘What in the hell is this guy doing?’,” Shute recalled. But he became a believer, joining Lakeside’s Safety Department as a regional safety specialist last July.
After attending a Construction Financial Management Association Summit (which Beyer keynoted) in Portland last fall, Shute said he learned that “people with mental health issues who are struggling with alcohol abuse, drug addiction and depression are suffering in silence because of the stigma behind the conversation.”
Lakeside is redefining suicide prevention as a part of construction safety culture
A “no-incident” record is a benchmark for construction leaders. Until recently, it only focused on physiological well-being. The psychological aspect, says the seminal Construction Industry Blueprint: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace, is just as important.
It was co-authored by Beyer, who, along with the Risk/Safety Team, knows that being responsible for about 700 employees’ lives means redefining occupational safety.
“Safety 24/7 is not enough to get employees home safely at the end of a shift,” said Beyer, an Executive Committee member and co-lead of the Workplace Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “For employees at risk, it’s just as important, if not more important, to get them back to work safe from home.”
Authoring many articles with voices from many construction leaders, his prolific record recently landed him the Engineering News-Record’s Top 25 Newsmakers honor for 2016.
Many have jumped on board in support of the new paradigm: Construction Financial Management Association; Associated General Contractors of Washington; Associated General Contractors of Oregon; National Association of Women in Construction; Asphalt Paving Association of Oregon, Northwest Utility Contractors Association; American Society of Safety Engineers; as well as locals #302 and #612 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Capacity-building for gatekeepers
Beyer and human resources professional Tracy Allen are Lakeside’s main points of contact for employees in a crisis – and have intervened with strict confidentiality. Last month, both attended Forefront’s Education Day, where Beyer was also a speaker (“Everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention”) at the Governor’s Residence.
At Semiahmoo Resort, “our goal here was to raise awareness and relevancy in the construction industry, because this is our industry and (suicide) is a real problem,” said Allen.
To further prepare workplace gatekeepers to play a role in construction suicide prevention, Lakeside Industries has future plans to partner with Forefront to provide in-depth LEARN™ training for leaders and supervisors.
They will continue integrating mental health awareness and suicide prevention into its existing safety, health, wellness and employee benefit programs and practices.
“We see benefits from increasing training on the benefits available through our Employee Assistance Program (EAP),” said Beyer. “We think LEARN™ is a very good model, a very useful model. This is a safety 24/7 topic.”
In the construction industry, and want to play a role in suicide prevention? Here’s a few things you can do:
Enter this number in your phone book
For immediate help in a suicide crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Change your workplace from inside out
– Read the Blueprint for Suicide Prevention to learn about risk factors, implementing Toolbox Talks (page 12-13), and more.
– Search the online resources available on Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), sponsored by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA).
– Get to know your EAP or community mental health professionals. Invite them to get to know the employees and the culture of the construction industry.
– Implement suicide prevention skills training. For training models, such as LEARN™, contact Forefront.
Download resources guides produced by CFMA
– Construction and Suicide Prevention: Why is This an Industry Imperative? By Sally Spencer-Thomas and Cal Beyer
– Construction and Suicide Prevention: 10 Action Steps Companies Can Take to Save Lives By Sally Spencer-Thomas and Cal Beyer
Learn through these websites
– Take the 20-point head inspection at ManTherapy.org